Over the past two years, the Wyoming State Legislature has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from state agencies and public services in response to declining mineral revenues. In this multi-part series, Better Wyoming will give readers a sense of some of these cuts’ magnitude and impacts in advance of the 2018 Legislative budget session, which convenes Feb. 12.
The Wyoming State Constitution requires the Legislature to sufficiently fund the University of Wyoming to keep higher education “as nearly free as possible.”
The state’s founding fathers viewed university education as fundamental to the public good and to the progress of Wyoming and its citizens.
But the current Legislature apparently considers education of any kind a burden. Just as they’ve slashed K-12 public school funds to the bone over the past two years, they’ve likewise cut the state’s flagship (and only) four-year university to the point of desperation.
The Legislature, by the way, is full of men who puff out their chests and proclaim to be staunch constitutionalists. We’re guessing Wyoming’s founding fathers would enjoy thumping many of them in the back of the head with two stiff fingers and telling them to get to work upholding the state’s constitution.
Cuts hit Laramie like a coal bust hits Gillette
The Legislature cut $42 million from the university’s budget over the past two years—roughly ten percent of its total funding. Cut-happy legislators gleefully followed Gov. Matt Mead’s advice to slash $35 million, and they added another $7 million in cuts on top of that, just for good measure.
UW officials issued a typically diplomatic statement, saying the reductions would offer “new challenges and obstacles” to the university’s tradition of “strong teaching, excellent research, and programs of superior quality.”
What they really meant was that the cuts would result in eliminating as many jobs in Laramie as Gillette lost in the 2015 coal bust, scrambling to discontinue and combine academic departments, rafts of seasoned educators quitting in disgust, and increasing teaching loads on those who stayed.
Since the university is one of the primary hubs for economic activity that could help diversify the state’s economy away from its dependence on boom-and-bust mineral industries (which, of course, caused the revenue problem in the first place) the cuts are also blatantly counterproductive.
More cuts to come?
Incoming UW President Laurie Nichols had just six weeks to put together a plan for the two-year budget cycle in 2017 – 18 that would accommodate having the rug pulled out from under her. Her administration identified $19.3 million in permanent budget cuts and $6.5 million in one-time reductions for 2017, and is working to sort out the rest over the next year.
All this work takes place while hoping the Legislature won’t decide to cut the budget further, which is always a distinct possibility when the mineral revenue streams aren’t freely flowing. Despite a recent modest rebound for oil prices, Wyoming is still staring at a total $700 million shortfall over the next two years, including K-12 public education and school construction funding.
Slashing jobs and services
The university responded to the funding cuts in a variety of ways—but the common themes were eliminating jobs and services to students.
Off the bat, UW did away with 102 positions through attrition—simply not hiring anyone for positions that weren’t currently filled. Then it offered several rounds of “retirement incentives” to push highly paid senior faculty members out the door, replacing some of them with non-tenured instructors who make roughly fast-food wages. Finally, the university handed pink slips to 37 employees last June, wishing them a fond farewell. In all, UW has thus far eliminated about 370 jobs in response to the Legislature’s cuts.
The faculty, staff, and administrators who have stayed at UW are feeling the pinch. “Reorganizations” on the Laramie campus and UW’s 25 outreach offices throughout the state have professors and everyone else doing more with less, as teaching loads have increased and part-time instructors who helped fill in gaps have been let go. Departments including the President’s Office, Student Affairs, Information Technology, Audit Reserve, and the Outreach Schools forfeited a total of about $4.5 million from their budgets.
As nearly free as possible?
After the 2017 cuts, UW formed a Financial Crisis Advisory Committee (FCAC) to find $10 million more to cut in 2018. The committee was comprised of administrators, faculty, staff, and a representative of student government.
Roughly $6 million of those cuts were meant to come from programs, academic and otherwise. The Departments of Engineering, Education, Agriculture, Arts and Sciences, Business, Law, Library, and Health Sciences all experienced cuts. The budgets of Academic Affairs, IT, the President’s Office, and Student Affairs were all cut even further under the committee’s recommendations.
The FCAC also recommended some “revenue enhancements” to offset the budget crisis. In addition to tactics they hope will increase on-campus living and retention, the committee proposed to increase student fees to the tune of $7 million and increase tuition four percent.
So much for “as nearly free as possible.”