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PAIN Illinois budget woes wreak havoc at colleges

By JIM PAXTON

A generation ago Southern Illinois University was an institution on the rise. In 1991 it had almost 25,000 students, dwarfing regional rival Murray State University. It had a relatively new law school with gleaming facilities and a top-notch law library. It established an aviation flight school and mechanics program, both of which became top-10 programs nationally. Its arena was a busy concert venue for top performers.

The success and growth of the school brought prosperity to the Marion-Carbondale-Harrisburg market. The retail sector boomed as two competing malls arose. Restaurants and entertainment likewise grew, providing jobs for students and permanent residents.

SIU still has much to offer to be sure. But relative to those glory days, these are hard times for both the university and its community.

Some of the problem lies in demographics. The population of college-age people in the U.S. has leveled off with the waning of the "Baby Boomlet" -- a population echo resulting from Baby Boomers rearing their own children in the '80s and '90s. But there's also a much bigger problem -- money. SIU and many other Illinois regional universities are being hit hard by a continuing budget stalemate rooted in the state's hopelessly underfunded public employee pension program.

We have written about this situation many times. We have done so for a reason. It is that Kentucky's own public employee pension debacle has overtaken Illinois' to become the nation's worst as measured by the Commonwealth's financial capacity to deal with it.

We noted recently that Illinois' backlog of unpaid bills for everyday operations grew to $10.9 billion by the end of last year. It is projected to grow to $14.5 billion by the end of June if nothing is done. So far, nothing has been.

At SIU and other regional colleges the failure of the Democratic legislature and Republican governor to agree on a budget for more than two years has produced a dramatic decline in funding. SIU President Randy Dunn recently told the Sun that this "governmental abomination" has forced the university to reduce staff by 300 over the past two years.

SIU was forced to cut spending by $21 million last year and Dunn has called for further permanent reductions of $30 million when the new fiscal year begins July 1. He says staff cuts have mostly been handled through attrition to date, but that will change in the coming year. Layoffs are likely and some of SIU's 218 undergraduate and graduate degree programs appear to be on the block.

Enrollment at SIU has fallen to 16,000. That includes its largest-ever decline of 1,300 students -- 7.5 percent -- last fall. SIU is far from alone in this regard. Other Illinois regionals have seen enrollment declines between 20 and 40 percent over the past decade.

There is clear evidence the budget crisis, and the squeeze it has put on the Illinois regionals, is a growing factor. The Chicago Tribune recently noted that 45 percent of the state's high school graduates bolted Illinois for out-of-state colleges last year. Fifteen years ago only 29 percent attended out of state.

We hope this is not a preview of what Kentucky faces due to its own pension recklessness. It is sobering to note last year's budget cuts at SIU alone surpassed the entirety of the $18 million Gov. Matt Bevin sought to cut retroactively from Kentucky college budgets in 2016. Many recall the hue and cry that produced.

A fear is if we don't get a handle on our own pension mess pretty quickly, Kentucky colleges haven't seen anything yet.

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