Though the University of Hawaii is expected to get an influx of federal relief funds this year, officials still have concerns that cuts proposed by the Legislature could hurt higher education programs.

Lawmakers have proposed 10% cuts for UH in a state budget that also sees Hawaii government as a whole taking general fund reductions of about 7%. Many program cuts have been supplanted by federal relief funds thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act. UH is expected to get relief funds sent directly to each of the 10 campuses that comprise the state higher education system.

But what those funds can be spent on is not yet clear, and administrators are pushing back against the proposed cuts.

“As is clearly evident, the budget passed by the Legislature demonstrates an approach that disproportionately reduces funding to the university,” UH budget chief Kalbert Young wrote in a legislative recap on Thursday.

UH Manoa Hawaii Hall.
Officials are still worried about budget cuts at UH even as federal relief funds are expected to flow into the higher education system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The budget that cleared the Legislature would axe $47 million in general funds from the UH budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1. It would also cut $42 million in the fiscal year after that.

All told, UH is looking at a total budget reduction of about 10%. However, UH Manoa is bearing the brunt of those cuts.

In fiscal year 2022, the flagship campus will have its budget reduced about 14%, or $35.6 million, compared to its current budget. Meanwhile, UH Hilo’s budget would drop by $2.2 million, and UH West Oahu by $1 million, budget reductions of 5.9% each. The community colleges would lose $4.6 million, or about 3%.

Lawmakers are also cutting the John A. Burns’ School of Medicine budget by about $1.2 million.

University officials would need to ask the Legislature to restore the funding. The chances that could happen appear slim.

“They will need to justify to the Legislature any additions or any type of items they want funded,” said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Lawmakers hope the budget reduction will force the university to downsize, an idea officials have also floated in recent months as part of a program to reimagine higher education in Hawaii. Dela Cruz also pointed to the additional federal relief funds UH can expect, as well as other areas the university can tap such as student tuition and other revenue sources.

“They have access to funds other departments don’t have,” he said.

In total, the cuts are still less than what Gov. David Ige proposed at the start of the year. The governor’s proposed budget would have slashed about $78 million from UH’s general fund budget in each of the next two fiscal years.

Lawmakers also added in just over $7 million for UH in the next fiscal year to cover costs associated with the aquarium, a free-tuition program, the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and additional positions at the community colleges, UH Cancer Center, UH West Oahu, UH Hilo and UH Manoa.

UH President David Lassner is expected to address the budget sometime next week.

UH officials are still assessing what impact the budget cuts could have on university operations, Young said in an interview.

“We need to evaluate how deep, where the deepness of the holes are and what UH administrators can do to keep programs running at (UH) Manoa,” Young said. “But we also have needs at other campuses as well. It will be a bit tricky.”

UH VP of Budget and Finance Kalbert Young before Senate budget hearing.
UH Vice President of Budget and Finance Kalbert Young said his office is still evaluating what proposed budget cuts could mean for UH. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Young estimates that UH may stand to receive about $90 million from the American Rescue Plan Act in direct grants to each of UH’s campuses. Half of that money, called the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, must be set aside for direct payments to students.

Young said his office is still evaluating what the other half, about $45 million, can be spent on. He had hoped to use available relief funds to save some programs that have taken large hits to their revenues this year like student housing, parking and athletics.

Young didn’t have an estimate readily available on the shortfalls facing all of those programs not covered by the university’s general fund budget. But they could be deep.

For example, he said student housing at UH Manoa reduced its capacity by 60%, and the athletics department has seen virtually no revenue from ticket sales, which typically account for most of its income in any given year.

“The bottom line is that there’s shortfalls all around because of COVID-19, and the legislative budget adds to that because of the reductions in general funds,” Young said.

UH officials are expected to present the university Board of Regents with a spending plan for the next fiscal year in August.

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