UW gets ‘standard budget’

LARAMIE — Barring any dramatic line-item vetoes from Gov. Mark Gordon, the University of Wyoming’s base support from the Legislature for the upcoming fiscal biennium will be essentially unchanged from its current status.

While there’s a dollar increase to account for inflation, the House and Senate voted Monday to finalize the budget bill with a “standard budget” for UW — meaning just enough for the university to maintain its current operations.

The Legislature sent the budget bill to Gordon’s desk with $175.4 million in base funding for each of UW’s next two fiscal years.

Since the time the budget bill was introduced in February, tweaked one piece of funding for UW: Securing $1.25 million for College of Law to create an endowment to support its legal clinics.

That funding was one of the most contentious in the budget debates between the House and the Senate last week. The House had sought to appropriate $2.5 million for that programming, while the Senate wanted to strike that funding entirely.

After legislators on the Joint Appropriations Committee had formed a compromise on most of the two chambers’ budget differences last week, the College of Law funding was one of the last issues that was hashed out in the final minutes of work on Friday.

“Currently, the College of Law’s clinics are funded by private donor support, and each faculty director is responsible for raising money to support their own clinic,” UW’s funding request states. “A permanent endowment will ensure that the clinics — which are effectively small law firms — operate annually without closure.

Moreover, the endowment is important to support scholarships for students serving in the clinics, endowed professorships for clinical law faculty, and visiting professorships for clinical law faculty.”

The law school’s clinics provide the state with $3.5 million of free legal services each year.

Before the current budget session began, UW Acting President Neil Theobald’s marquee budget proposal had been to ask the Legislature for an extra $10 million, to be matched by private donations, to establish a $20 million pool for increasing the number of UW professors.

The final budget bill provides only $5 million for those professors, but with strings attached: 80% of that $5 million will have to be used for College of Agriculture, which was cut disproportionately during UW’s budget cuts of 2016. The other $1 million will need to be used for professorships that are part of UW’s Science Initiative and the Tier 1 Engineering Initiative.

On Monday, the Legislature finalized a few other amendments regarding UW’s block grant that did not add or remove funding.

The Legislature’s final version of the budget bill makes UW’s block grant contingent on a new rule: The university cannot “expend any general funds, federal funds or other funds under its control” on “group health insurance that provides coverage of elective abortions for students.”

Currently, UW’s student health care plans are funded through the premiums students pay, not the Legislature’s block grant. Getting insurance through the university is voluntary for all students except some international students.

According to the Legislative Service Office, while Student Health Services doesn’t provide abortions, UW student insurance provided through United-Healthcare does, in fact, cover both “medically necessary abortion under complications of pregnancy and elective abortion, subject to all other requirements of the policy (deductible, copay, in and outside of network rates, etc.).”

The budget bill also calls for a study to examine UW’s governance structure and compare it to the “best practices of other land grant universities’ governance structures that could be adopted to maximize efficient operations.”

That came as a last-minute amendment to the state’s budget bill, with the proposal’s backers expressing a vague lack of confidence in UW’s leadership, especially in the wake of former President Laurie Nichols’s 2019 ouster.

However, the final budget bill does not include an appropriation for that study and, instead, tasks the Legislature’s Management Council with contracting for that study.

The bill has also been amended to require that the Energy Resource Council to sign off on $10 million worth of energy research projects that the bill has appropriated for.

In total, the budget bill included almost $100 million extra in funding for UW besides its $350.8 million block grant.