State senators took aim at some of the University of Hawaii’s budget priorities in a three-and-a-half-hours-long meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Their message was clear: UH might not get everything it wants for Christmas.

Among the topics in the senators’ crosshairs were the university’s expansion of the Hawaii Promise Program and its planned capital improvements.

WAM Chair Sen Donna Mercado Kim as she listens to UH VP of Budget and Finance Kalbert Young during presentation to the WAM committee.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and Higher Education Committee Chair Donna Mercado Kim listen to Kalbert Young, UH’s vice president of budget and Finance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chair of the Higher Education Committee, questioned whether UH’s request to expand the scholarship program, which university leadership said was a top priority, is even feasible.

The program covers education costs like books and tuition for eligible students after all financial aid has been applied — including the federal government’s assessment of what a student’s family should be able to kick in.

Gov. David Ige included in his proposed budget announced Monday the university’s request for $19 million to extend the scholarship to students at four-year institutions. It currently serves community college students.

Kim noted the program has only been in the community colleges for two years and questioned the sustainability of providing UH $19 million every year to fund these scholarships.

“It puts the legislators in a situation where the public is saying, ‘Why aren’t you giving us this money, this free tuition?'” Kim said. “It’s easy to throw these numbers out and let us be the bad guy.”

Kalbert Young, the university budget chief, said the expansion to the four-year universities, which carry higher tuition costs than community colleges, would help current scholarship recipients transfer to four-year schools.

University of Hawaii UH Manoa VP Budget and Finance Kalbert Young speaks to WAM.
Kalbert Young, UH vice president for budget and finance, answers senators’ questions Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Young said that the $19 million in the governor’s request represents the maximum amount the university would need to cover the unmet financial need at UH’s four-year institutions; however, the model it uses could change.

He said that UH officials could come back with different models for the Legislature to examine.

For example, Sen. Donavan Dela Cruz, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, asked if more students could be encouraged to spend their first two years at community colleges, where tuition is cheaper, before transferring to the four-year schools.

One of the most contentious issues in recent years has been the university’s handling of its deferred maintenance backlog, which ballooned to more than $800 million last year.

UH officials have proposed a six-year, $1 billion spending plan to address some of the maintenance issues while replacing some of the 10-campus system’s worst buildings, most of them on the Manoa campus.

UH has requested over $600 million for capital improvement projects for the next biennium, which covers 2020 and 2021.

On Monday, Ige announced he was putting $300 million for those improvements into his budget request to the Legislature for the next biennium. Ige included funding for some of UH’s larger construction projects such as replacing Snyder Hall at UH Manoa and a new science building at Honolulu Community College.

Senator Kurt Fevella during WAM committee meeting listening to UH VP of Budget and finance preliminary meeting with WAM.
Sen. Kurt Fevella listens to a discussion about UH finances. He wants to see more resources directed to UH West Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Absent from the major capital requests was funding for UH West Oahu. That irked Sen. Kurt Fevella, the freshman Republican from Ewa Beach.

“The kids are parking in the dirt,” Fevella said. “Tell me if anyone from Manoa would park in the dirt?”

Young said that the university didn’t get its full capital request accepted into Ige’s proposed budget, adding the improvement plan for UH West Oahu had included nearly $20 million for projects.

Those funds would have gone toward improving infrastructure and planning for a new general education building.

Ige is requesting $1 million in 2020 and 2021 for improvement projects at UH West Oahu. That money could go toward repairing roofing and creating an entry plaza, according to UH budget documents.

The legislators also criticized UH’s budget models and processes.

Kim questioned why the university administration sets priorities with a budget policy paper instead of asking individual campuses or departments what they need and building up from there.

That bottom-up approach mirrors the zero-based budgeting system that was proposed for all state agencies by House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, which would force the university to justify how it spends its money.

Young said the university has tried to implement a more bottom-up approach, but that the budget process is still limited by time.

“(Policy papers) set up the highway, or at least the guide rails, for what we’re trying to advance,” he said.

The UH budget has long been a target for legislators.

The university’s proposed operating budget of $1.2 billion budget is exceeded only by the departments of Education, Human Services, Budget and Finance and Health.

But the relationship between the university and most of the Legislature may be improving.

“The rapport and sense of cooperation is better,” Young, himself a former state budget director, recently told the Civil Beat editorial board.

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