Using data to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs funded by state tax dollars is the basis of Evidence Based Budgeting. As states nationwide face greater demands for spending, many are adopting principles that use evidence to support strategic prioritization of taxpayer dollars and improve government accountability. Non-profit organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts have championed best practices and assisted states with implementation of evidence based budgeting policies.
In order for lawmakers to appropriate tax dollars based on evidence of their effective use, knowing how your tax dollars are spent is a basic requirement. The third largest expense in the Nebraska General Fund budget is the appropriation to the University of Nebraska system. As such, Nebraska taxpayers deserve the same level of accountability and transparency about how tax dollars are spent by NU as is provided by all other state agencies.
Unfortunately, the University of Nebraska cannot detail how over half a billion dollars of state funds are spent each year. During the deficit budget and biennial budget process in 2017 I came to understand that state General Fund dollars appropriated to the University of Nebraska are not tracked beyond the level of the campus to which they are allocated. I learned this through communication with University administration. Requests by my office for further specificity concerning how state tax dollars have been spent resulted in only estimates to the level of college and major unit.
Simply put, of the $583 million appropriated to the University system from the General Fund in the last fiscal year, the only transparency for the specific use of those tax dollars was that $266 million was allocated to UNL, $153 million to UNMC, $66 million to UNO, $40 million to UNK, $28 million for system wide administration and computing, $27 million for university-wide activities and legislative earmarks, and $3 million for NCTA in Curtis. Beyond that level, tax dollars are mixed with other revenue, including tuition. No tracking of your tax dollars for transparency and accountability is done beyond that point.
Every other state agency is subject to full scrutiny of how taxpayer dollars are used. Recent reports by the State Auditor of small, cash funded agencies such as the Tourism Commission and Brand Committee detailed how public funds were used inappropriately, specifying specific purchases of goods via individual receipts and actual miles traveled in a state vehicle for personal use. The response of the Assistant Vice President of Budget & Planning as to why there was no data on how your tax dollars were spent by NU that “it’s really no different than the joint checking account” used by he and his spouse in their home does not pass even the basic standard of accountability.
In light of tax receipts falling $34 million below projected forecast levels for the conclusion of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, full accounting of all state dollars is even more important. As spending across state government is scrutinized, the University system must provide equal transparency regarding the use of public tax dollars.
Furthermore, the lack of data confounds the ability of lawmakers to effectively appropriate tax dollars. Over the course of the next biennium, the University received an average reduction of 0.2% over the previous budget. University leadership made a variety of dramatic claims and generalizations about the impact of this reduction. However, they provided no clear evidence of direct, specific impacts to programs, much less harm to the overall mission of the University. With no tracking of tax dollars to their point of use, it is impossible to evaluate the impact of either reductions or increases in state appropriations on University programs. Sound principles of Evidence Based Budgeting cannot be followed.
The significance of the University of Nebraska to our state is indisputable. Nebraska taxpayers value affordability of higher education, research, and the cultural contributions of a vibrant university system. Legislators have shown a commitment to the University of Nebraska with generous General Fund appropriations in excess of half a billion dollars annually. Additional tax dollars are provided through various Cash Funds, the Capital Construction budget, and specific earmarks. In fact, Nebraskans underwrite higher education at the University of Nebraska at a level unmatched by most states. Public confidence in that investment and effective decisions about future appropriations require full transparency and accountability of how taxpayer dollars are spent.