N.Y. Budget Takes Another Bite Out of SUNY and Omits Most Regulatory Freedoms

March 31, 2011

New York's Legislature on Wednesday passed a budget on time for the first time in five years, but lawmakers got little appreciation for their promptness from higher education.

The lawmakers cut an estimated $289-million from the operating budget of the State University of New York. bringing total reductions in the system's state appropriations to more than $1.4-billion over the past four years, according to system figures.

While the on-time budget is seen as a political victory for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat in his first term, it has sparked protests at the State Capitol and outrage across New York, including its campuses.

"Slashing SUNY so deeply means more canceled classes, fewer course offerings, and more students and families forced to pay for an extra year or more of college at a time when they can least afford it," said Phillip H. Smith, president of a union, United University Professions, that represents about 35,000 faculty and staff members on the system's four-year campuses, in a written statement.

It wasn't all bad news for the system. Lawmakers restored about $60-million in cuts to the system's three teaching hospitals, though reductions for those institutions will still total more than $90-million.

And legislators loosened some rules governing how SUNY buys supplies and equipment and manages campus construction projects—two bureaucratic changes that SUNY's chancellor, Nancy L. Zimpher, has pressed for during the current and previous legislative sessions.

Morgan Hook, the chancellor's spokesman, said the changes in procurement rules were welcome but long overdue. "SUNY operates in one of the most highly regulated and cumbersome public-university administrative environments in the country," he said in a written statement. "Just as certain laws are burdens to businesses, some of the state's rules limit both SUNY's efficiency and responsiveness, and are a great burden to SUNY and its stakeholders."

But many of the broader changes the system has lobbied for were, for the second consecutive year, excluded from the budget, including changes in tuition policy and more freedom to lease system land and enter into public-private partnerships.

Instead, lawmakers have revived an effort to give many of those flexibilities to a single campus, the University at Buffalo. The legislation, called the "UB 2020 Flexibility and Economic Growth Act," passed the State Senate overwhelmingly but may face greater hurdles in the State Assembly.

In striking a budget deal with legislative leaders, Governor Cuomo, who expressed support for the UB 2020 concept during his campaign last year, has pledged to convene a summit to iron out opposition to the legislation.