The University of Hawaii is asking the state Legislature for additional appropriations of about $29 million for each of the next two fiscal years to add to its annual operating budget of about $1.1 billion.

Its request centered around the university’s four strategic directions to modernize facilities, provide innovation training to create more jobs and diversify the state’s economy, help more students graduate and ensure that the university continues to provide affordable access to higher education.

UH is also requesting $450 million over the two-year period to pay for Capital Improvement Program projects, like refurbishing and replacing buildings.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, center, voiced concerns about the university asking for more money when resources could possibly be found within the current system. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

But members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee cited concerns during a Wednesday hearing about the university asking for additional money when some resources could possibly be found within the current system.

One request is to add nine positions to help maintain facilities, mostly at UH Manoa, under the university’s 21st Centuries Facilities initiative.

UH President David Lassner said at the hearing that investment in maintaining facilities was severely diminished as a result of budget cuts that the Manoa campus experienced in recent years. He noted that under a previous chancellor, some positions, when they were vacant, were transferred to other campuses to be filled.

“It seems like a shell game,” said Sen. Donna Mercado Kim.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, the committee chair, expressed concerns regarding the university’s request for $5 million for the UH Cancer Center for each of the next two fiscal years to help restore the money lost from declining state cigarette tax revenues.

The cigarette tax used to generate $19 million a year. Now, it’s bringing in less than $14 million a year, said Randall Holcombe, the center’s director, at the hearing.

He took over the center about three months ago and inherited an $8.3 million operating deficit from fiscal year 2016. Under a new business plan, he said he hopes to shrink that deficit by $3 million in the next three years, leaving it at $5 million, which is being requested for each of the next two years.  

“I believe restoration of that $5 million will put us on a long-term sustainable path, and unless some unforeseen things happen in the future related to our revenue flows that I can’t predict, I think that we’ll be on a stable zero deficit sustainable path moving forward,” Holcombe said at the hearing.

Tokuda questioned one of the university’s special funds, called the UH Revenue Undertaking Fund-Cancer Center, which contained $6 million at the start of fiscal year 2017 and didn’t look like it was being used.

Lassner said it contains the leftover monies from constructing the center, which had come in under budget. Michael Ng, the university’s budget office director, said the monies are for repairs and maintenance, and said he was uncertain if it could be used for other purposes, like operations.

While Tokuda acknowledged that the fund might be limited in what it could be used for, she was unhappy that the university was asking for more money when the fund could possibly tapped.

In December, Gov. David Ige released his own budget request, which asked for an additional $22 million per fiscal year for the university’s operating budget.

His request focused on some of the initiatives from the university’s original proposal for  about $29 million per fiscal year, though he also recommended that $10 million of it be used for unspecified needs.

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