Trigger cuts could indicate higher education low priority for state

The University of California could soon face an additional $100 million in preapproved, midyear trigger cuts — on top of $650 million already cut from the system this year — if state revenues fall significantly behind projected numbers.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office and the state Department of Finance will release revenue forecasts for the state — by mid-November and December, respectively — which will determine if cuts will be enacted in part, in whole or at all.

“The Legislature wanted to make sure that there was a built-in mechanism in place to keep the budget in balance, and that’s what you have with the preapproved trigger cuts,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the state Department of Finance.

In a time of drastically reduced funds, higher education may continue to be the most vulnerable institution due to policies and mechanisms in place that prioritize state funding for other public services.

According to Hans Johnson, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, state legislation currently guarantees that a minimum portion of the state’s general fund will be allocated toward K-12 and community college education. Although California community colleges are covered, the University of California and California State University are not protected under the law.

Furthermore, Johnson said other public services, such as transportation and economic assistance for low-income families, are provided safety nets due to matched federal funding, court mandated funding and dedicated revenue streams.

“I think the reality is (higher education) is likely to remain more on its own,” Johnson said.  “It’s just kind of depressing, but that’s the reality … Higher education is the area that seems the most expendable. I would say mostly the fault lies with our state policymakers, and the UC and CSU are given a hand that they have to deal with. They’re really responders to what the state does.”

Previously, Gov. Jerry Brown has assured UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau that the trigger cuts were likely to occur.

Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Wilton said in a Friday interview with The Daily Californian’s Senior Editorial Board that although the UC will not raise student tuition midyear, the institution may dip into its emergency reserves if the cuts are enacted.

However, Palmer and Paul Golaszewski, senior policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that at this point, not enough information is known to predict whether the UC will actually lose the $100 million.

“I think that people are trying to extrapolate three months of revenue data and assume where things are going to go,” Palmer said. “But there are a lot more pieces of critical data that we are going to be getting in the next few weeks that will inform the Legislative Analyst’s forecast, as well as ours.”

Jessica Rossoni covers higher education.