University of Nebraska supporters descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday to plead with the Appropriations Committee now weighing its options for slashing the university’s state aid.
About 40 students and others gathered on the Capitol's north steps over the noon hour in advance of the committee's 1:30 p.m. public hearing. Many were ushered to an overflow room as the hearing began.
Organized opposition from students to the budget cut proposals put forward by Gov. Pete Ricketts began to coalesce in recent weeks, culminating in Wednesday’s showdown at the Legislature.
Gabriella Parsons, a UNL senior who launched the Nebraska Coalition for Affordable Education alongside fellow senior Merika Andrade, said in an interview earlier this week there was a growing energy among students concerned about the shuttering of programs and potential tuition increases.
Ricketts proposed stripping $11.4 million from the university’s state appropriation for the remainder of this fiscal year — a move NU will likely cover by dipping into its cash reserve — as well as cutting $23.2 million from NU’s state aid in 2018-19.
That would put the university’s total state aid at $557 million, down from $570 million this year. When combined with increases to salaries, health insurance and utilities, means NU would need to trim $69 million through spending cuts and tuition increases to balance its budget.
The NU Board of Regents approved a 3.2 percent tuition hike for the 2018-19 school year, but it’s likely that any additional cut to the university’s state aid will require regents to consider an additional increase in tuition later this spring.
The news hit like a sledgehammer earlier this year, Parsons said, and ignited a desire to act.
“Right from when these cuts were announced, there was an energy on campus that changed,” said Parsons, 22, a senior journalism major from Lincoln whose father works on the gubernatorial campaign for Democrat Bob Krist. “There was a thought ‘Wow, what if we actually could mobilize students to care about this.’”
Both Parsons and Andrade and nearly 30 others reached out to Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, who represents most of UNL’s students in the Legislature, for guidance in engaging the legislative process.
“I encouraged them to use their voice and talk about their story of how these kind of cuts are going to have an impact,” Morfeld said, “not only on the programs they decide to stay in Nebraska for, but quite frankly, their ability to stay in Nebraska after they’re done with their education.”
Parsons said students determined they would put a face on the potential budget cuts for lawmakers.
“It seems to always be discussed by people who aren’t really seeing us as students but numbers,” she added.
Other university students from the medical center in Omaha planned to visit with senators before Wednesday’s hearing wearing their lab coats.
Andrade, 27, also a senior journalism major from Lincoln, said the ability to take part in the process “beyond standing in a street chanting” is empowering.
“Whatever decision is made, we want them to know it won’t be without them knowing that students are paying attention,” she said.