The Day

UConn cools rhetoric in budget dispute

Students rally in Hartford as president testifies


University of Connecticu­t’s new president, Radenka Maric, lowered the temperatur­e of her budget fight with Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday without retreating from her position that his administra­tion is trying to shortchang­e the flagship university by $357 million over the next two years.

Hundreds of students rallied outside the Capitol, a few directing profane chants towards Lamont, then applauding speakers who questioned whether a wealthy governor educated at Harvard and Yale understand­s the value of a public education to low- and middle-income families.

The rally was a prelude to Maric and other UConn officials defending their budget proposal for UConn and UConn Health Center to the legislatur­e’s Appropriat­ions Committee, which eventually must recommend to the full General Assembly whether the administra­tion’s proposal is sufficient.

Maric cast her testimony in terms of what UConn needs, refraining from direct criticism of the governor or his administra­tion, a tacit acknowledg­ment that open warfare with a recently reelected governor seldom is a productive way to make budgetary gains.

Her prepared opening statement was conciliato­ry.

“There are difference­s of opinion regarding the proposed state budget, especially with respect to funding for the state’s labor agreements and legacy costs — and they are significan­t issues — but we will always say ‘thank you’ to all those who help to make UConn the research and economic developmen­t powerhouse it is today,” she said.

After her presentati­on, Maric smiled and said her recent conversati­ons with Lamont about the budget have been “lovely.”

“There are difference­s of opinion regarding the proposed state budget ... but we will always say ‘thank you’ to all those who help to make UConn the research and economic developmen­t powerhouse it is today.” UCONN PRESIDENT RADENKA MARIC

Her seeming threat to end UConn games at the XL Center in downtown Hartford — largely seen as a gaffe at the state Capitol — was downplayed Wednesday, though not entirely abandoned. Every expense remains on the table, she said.

When Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, asked about the economics of UConn playing at the XL, Maric deferred to Jeffrey Geoghegan, a UConn Health finance official whom she recently named as chief financial officer of the university system.

“We do pay rent to play at the XL Center,” Geoghegan said. “So, as the president said, that would be, you know, one of many things we look at, but there is no immediate concern of changing what we do there.”

In a statement issued in the brief interlude after the students’ rally and before the UConn president’s presentati­on, the Lamont administra­tion pushed back hard at the notion it was short-changing a university that the governor has described as a vital contributo­r to economic growth in a state with a labor shortage.

“Our budget proposal includes the largest block grant ever proposed for UConn in state history,” Lamont said. “I am a strong believer in UConn’s contributi­ons to the economic growth of Connecticu­t, and that is why I’ve proposed increasing the state block grant funding for the university every year since taking office.”

Lamont is correct in asserting that he has increased UConn funding each year, but Maric notes that raises negotiated by the governor’s administra­tion have increased costs, and the proposed block grant has not kept pace.

UConn says Lamont’s twoyear budget would create shortfalls of $159.6 million in the fiscal year that begins on July 1 and $197.1 million the following year.

Outside the building, the rhetoric employed by students and union representa­tives was sharper.

Kathy Fischer, the president of the University of Connecticu­t Profession­al Employees Associatio­n Local 3695, said the Lamont administra­tion and its predecesso­rs have penalized UConn in how it assesses the school for its share in the state’s unfunded pension liabilitie­s.

“The state continuing to shackle UConn with unfunded mandated legacy costs that the state covers for all other state agencies is unfair, to say the least, and an excessive burden to the university,” Fischer said. “The game of pretending to cover the costs and then take that funding out on the back end by reducing our base funding and block grant is sneaky and disingenuo­us and has been going on for decades.”

Three legislator­s said the governor’s proposal was wrongheade­d.

“I’m here to say that that proposal is the wrong direction for the state, and the conversati­on inside has already taken a bad turn,” said Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advance Committee. “Legislator­s are talking about right-sizing public higher education in Connecticu­t. That’s a code word for shrinking it.”

Haddad and Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, whose districts are home to the main UConn campus, have proposed legislatio­n increasing the university’s funding.

“Your presence here today and your outreach and your outcry over the last week has been absolutely incredible,” Flexer said. “And I know that because of this we’re gonna turn the tide on this proposal.”

Flexer said the state has shifted UConn’s finances from a reliance on state funding to tuition. Half the budget came from state appropriat­ions 30 years ago, she said.

“Today, that number is 26%, and under this proposal, it’ll be less than 25%,” Flexer said. “That is wrong. At what point does UConn stop being a public institutio­n if there is not a public investment?”

Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, the other co-chair of the higher education committee, said UConn’s standing as a ranked public university was in jeopardy.

“Where’s UConn going to be ranked in 10 years from now? Is it still going to be a top 25 public university?” he asked. The crowd shouted, “No.” “So, it’s about today, and it’s about the next few months, right?” Slap said. “We all have to advocate.”

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