CT lawmakers back more money for colleges. But how much is a mystery

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved a new fund for higher education, child care and critical nonprofits.

John Craven

Apr 4, 2024, 10:02 PM

Updated 46 days ago

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As students at Connecticut’s public colleges brace for another tuition hike and deeper cuts to classes, state lawmakers stepped in on Thursday.
The Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved a new fund for higher education, child care and critical nonprofits. But how much money is actually available – and whether the proposal will even survive budget negotiations – remain a mystery.
STUDENTS IN LIMBO
Students at Connecticut State Community College’s Norwalk campus are getting ready for finals – and wondering if they can afford to return in the fall.
“All those tuitions and fees are extremely high for me to pay out of pocket,” freshman Natalie Valentin said.
The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system recently raised tuition by 5%. For students at all 12 community colleges, that comes out to an extra $246 in tuition and fees. At Connecticut’s four public universities – Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Connecticut – it’s $990 more, including room and board.
“It’s very, very sad that it’s going up, because not everyone can afford it,” said Valentin.
CSCU says it needs $63 million more, while the University of Connecticut is asking for $120 million. But Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget left them flat-funded. The governor insists that schools need to live within their means.
“Under Gov. Lamont, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system has received historic levels of state funding," Lamont spokesperson Julia Bergman said on Dec. 14. “The federal COVID relief funding provided in recent years to the system was always intended to be one-time in nature. We continue to work with the CSCU system to both identify savings and ways to attract additional students.”
LAWMAKERS STEP IN
Relief could be coming. Maybe.
On Thursday, the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee voted to create a new Stabilization Support and ARPA Replacement Fund for higher ed and other priorities.
“Education, education, education. Non-profits, non-profits, non-profits,” said state Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven), the committee’s co-chair. “Those were the things we heard almost every single night.”
But it’s unclear how much colleges would actually get.
Lawmakers hope to provide at least $300 million, but they don’t know how much money is available yet. The funds would come from remaining federal American Rescue Plan dollars, as well moving money around in the current year’s budget. Lamont’s office believes more than $100 million is left over from ARPA. That money must be allocated by the end of this year.
ACCOUNTING GIMMICK?
Republicans called the proposal an end-run around the state’s strict spending caps, since the new fund would be off-budget. It could also shrink this year’s pension payments for state workers.
“I will remain – not leery, but skeptical – of opportunities, if you will, or attempts to work around our very important guardrails,” said state Sen. Eric Berthel (R-Watertown).
In a rare move, the committee decided not to counter Lamont’s budget proposal.
“We did that because, in looking at what it would do to our revenues by having to open up the budget, and also looking at some of the reductions that were proposed, we felt that we had established some very clear issues that we wanted to maintain,” Walker said.
Republicans questioned whether Democrats plan to keep the off-budget fund in place permanently. Osten said that’s not her intention.
“I’m uncomfortable with it,” said state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky (R-Newtown), “because it appears to me to be a way around the guardrails, which means an awful lot to the fiscal integrity of our state.”
OTHER CHANGES
On Thursday, the Appropriations Committee also reversed $150 million in Lamont’s proposed cuts to K-12 schools, and eliminated tuition for magnet schools starting in Fall of 2025. But without a budget proposal, it’s also unclear how lawmakers plan to pay for it.
“We’re going to hope as we move forward that in discussions, that our legislative leaders have and Gov. Lamont will take these priorities into consideration as they begin the budget deliberations,” said the committee’s other co-chair, state Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague).
Back in Norwalk, students hope there’s enough money to avoid even deeper cutbacks.
“There's some classes that they might not even take because it’s just not available at the moment,” Valentin said.
Lamont and the General Assembly have until May 8 to reach a budget deal, or the current plan stays in place.


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