Budgeting without a budget

University officials said they’re used to last-minute budgets

FORREST HOLT, Evergreen news editor

Due to a historically late state budget, university officials at WSU Spokane rolled back their Services and Activities fees from a five- percent increase to 2.2 percent, the same rate at which tuition has increased.

A major problem with the state being so late, WSU’s Chief Budget Officer Joan King said is that the Board of Regents, WSU’s highest governing body, is required by law to approve changes to the university’s budget. This is a problem because the state-appointed Regents only meet about monthly, and they are from all over the state, so considerable prior notice is required to organize a meeting, King said.

“If you don’t have a Regents meeting,” she said, “you don’t have any way [to approve budget changes] except to delegate to the president.”

On May 5, King submitted a proposal to the Regents that they give President Kirk Schulz the authority to approve, reject or make changes to the university budget in case there were conflicts with the state government’s final budget.

In past years, King said, the state signed a budget into law early enough for the Regents to be able to meet if needed, but not this year.

The Regents approved the proposal to give Schulz the final say on the budget, a power he ended up using when Spokane campus’ Services and Activities, or S&A, fee increase was found to be out of line with language in the state’s new budget.

Historically, a campus could increase S&A fees by however much it wanted, with the Regents’ approval, but this time around, the state government decided to limit S&A fee increases to 2.2 percent.

Spokane campus proposed a five-percent increase. King said it is normal for a campus to increase S&A fees at a rate higher than tuition so they can save up money for a big project. Pullman campus, for example, increased S&A for a while to pool money to begin work on the Chinook Student Center, she said. Tri-Cities campus did the same thing before opening its new student union building as well.

With authority vested in him by the Regents, Schulz gave Spokane campus final approval to drop its S&A fee increase to 2.2 percent, putting it in compliance with new state law.

University officials said they were not surprised when the state government was late, this year signing the budget into law 45 minutes before a government shutdown. King said planning the budget can be challenging when universities are unsure how much funding they will receive from the state.

“It is an interesting political process that goes right up to the wire,” King. “We anticipate, frankly.”

By that, she means WSU had a draft budget ready months before the state government did.

Christopher Mulick, WSU’s Director of State Relations, said he needed to keep in constant communication with state legislative staff to make sure the university’s budget was viable. When the state is late, he said, he compares budget proposals from both parties to get an idea of what the final budget might look like. However, Mulick said, this means the university must be especially careful not to overspend.

“Nothing is ever a lock,” he said. “We are constantly playing like we’re two touchdowns behind.”

During the state government’s budget negotiations, some of WSU’s top priorities were tuition, funding for the new medical school in Spokane and money for increased enrollment at the Everett campus.

In the end, tuition rates increased by 2.2 percent, — proportional to the state’s hourly wage growth — the medical school received enough funding to enroll 60 students and Everett’s enrollment expansion was scrapped entirely.

King and Mulick both said the university will begin the process of crafting new budget proposals for the 2019-2021 biennium in the coming weeks but could not yet say what would be on the table.

While the state government’s budget was extraordinarily late this biennium, Mulick said, the university was prepared for it after past late budgets.

“We’ve done it twice before,” he said. “We have found ways to adapt and manage the situation.”