Eating the ‘reality sandwich’

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: UC President Janet Napolitano, Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Legislature and the regents must avoid a tuition hike.

We’ve heard this story before, and we know how it’s going to end.

Once again, the president of the University of California system, the UC Board of Regents, the state Legislature and the governor’s office are doing their usual dance over the amount of money the state will pour into the university’s budget. Although the cast is a little different this year, the story remains the same.

UC President Janet Napolitano’s request for $120 million in state funding for the university, in addition to the $146 million already proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, was rejected as an unrealistic “wish list” by the governor. Brown suggested the university contemplate a “reality sandwich”: Were this the final UC budget proposal, the state Legislature would likely not “bail out” the system by granting the university substantially more funding, increasing the likelihood of yet another UC tuition increase.

That said, the problem here is larger than Napolitano, Brown and the UC Regents; yet again, the structural issues affecting California’s state budget and the money available to fund the university are what complicate this process.

Because of the federal and state regulations on how the California State Legislature can move around money, there are limitations to what additional funding the state can give to the UC system. Over the next months, Napolitano, the Legislature, the regents and Brown will go back and forth over the specifics of the UC budget that will be passed sometime next spring. Because raising tuition is one of the few tools the regents have at their disposal to immediately raise revenue, Brown’s “reality sandwich” is less an ominous threat and more a sharp reminder of what’s at stake should the budget wrangling prove fruitless.

Napolitano, all the same, must and inevitably will go to the regents and to Sacramento to make her case for why the university needs the extra aid.

The additional $120 million Napolitano is asking for would help cover the rising costs of pensions. While the state helps to manage the pension costs of the California State University system, it doesn’t help nearly as much with the University of California’s pension liabilities. Sadly, though, Brown’s assessment of the political climate as unconducive to passing an additional nine-digit allocation to the UC system is dead on.

Part of the reason a seasoned bureaucrat such as Napolitano was brought in to lead the university was to deal with challenges such as the UC budgeting process. As they proceed, Napolitano, Brown, the Legislature and the regents should consider the dire consequences of what could happen should their budget drama fail to yield a compromise — the threat of another painful tuition hike.