Editorials

State, UC disappoint with budget tricks

UC President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown at a Board of Regents meeting. Budget hijinks by both UC and lawmakers have tarnished an otherwise laudable budget deal.
UC President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown at a Board of Regents meeting. Budget hijinks by both UC and lawmakers have tarnished an otherwise laudable budget deal. The Associated Press

There’s plenty for an aspiring University of California student to like about the new state budget. UC President Janet Napolitano deserves a pat on the back.

Departing from the UC’s past strategy of genteel begging, Napolitano threatened to increase tuition unless the state upped its investment. Some resented the move, but it wasn’t irrational; the state has long shortchanged California’s higher education system. Her squeaky-wheel strategy loosened Gov. Jerry Brown’s famously tight purse strings, and forestalled a tuition hike.

But just when the maneuvering seemed to be over and it seemed we could all get back to putting kids first, it turns out that one of most likable aspects of the UC’s budget deal – a $25 million incentive to make room for more in-state students – probably won’t pan out.

Maybe it’s tough love; maybe it’s payback. But there are all sorts of strings attached to that $25 million. And for aspiring UC students, that’s not so nice.

Legislators wrote the extra money into the UC budget after Napolitano and Brown announced a tentative agreement. In exchange for keeping tuition flat, making some pension reforms and some other concessions, the governor had agreed to give Napolitano enough state money to cover UC operations at its existing student head count.

Brown left it to them to decide whether to underwrite any extra undergraduate enrollment – a big deal, given the legions of California kids who want UC diplomas. But Napolitano’s confrontational style offended.

The final budget deal ended up dangling the extra $25 million, but only if UC squeezes enough out of its budget to cover 5,000 new in-state undergraduate students, a problem because UC says every penny already is taken. Essentially, the Legislature cleverly offered a fistful of money – and then made it exceptionally difficult to access.

Somewhere in the Capitol, someone is chortling. Putting Napolitano in her place must have been gratifying.

And the UC does, indeed, talk a good game but manage, like so many bureaucracies, to resume business as usual the minute the heat’s off.

Just last week, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi announced the hiring of a “chief global strategist” for her campus, replacing a $174,000 vice provost with an administrator who’ll be paid $250,000 in base salary.

The new job is broader. But the ink is barely dry on the budget, and already UC is re-fattening administrative payroll. Did no one consider the optics of that?

The thing is, there’s more at stake than lawmakers v.s. Napolitano. Those 5,000 slots can be filled or not, and the politicians, university presidents, chancellors and global strategists will be fine.

But turning enrollment into a line-item payback means 5,000 real kids will be sent elsewhere with their aspirations. When you view it that way, sly budget tricks and business-as-usual paychecks are pretty hard to like.

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