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State Assembly to scrutinize UC spending through new budgeting process

By Daniel Ahn

Feb. 19, 2015 1:15 a.m.

The California Assembly is going through each line item in the University of California’s budget for the first time in an effort to more closely scrutinize the University’s expenses.

The new funding process, known as zero-based budgeting, requires the UC to justify all of its spending, instead of the Legislature approving only changes from the last year’s budget.

In Wednesday’s state Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 2 on Education Finance meeting, University representatives presented a report on how much the University spends on education for its students. Legislators, experts, officials, faculty and students had a chance to question and comment on their reports.

California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) said in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee Saturday that they think zero-based funding will allow for a thorough public discussion and an opportunity for the University to prove its funding is spent efficiently.

Gov. Jerry Brown recommended zero-based budgeting as a way to reform the California Department of Finance in an executive order in 2011, and Atkins called for the review process to be used this year in response to the UC’s proposed tuition hikes.

Atkins said at the hearing Wednesday that she thinks the Assembly’s top-to-bottom approach will complement Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano’s committee of two, which examines the UC’s finances and budget.

“We will have open, public hearings that are student-focused, looking at how much it really costs to educate students at UC, and how we maximize UC’s acceptance of California students,” Atkins said.

Olsen said at the hearing that she thinks the new approach is a bipartisan effort to make the UC more accountable to its statistics.

The University said it will cooperate with Atkins’ implementation of zero-based budgeting. The UC added, however, that it thinks the new process will be a long one.

“Zero-based budgeting … means starting from ‘zero,’ and, as such, promises to be a long and exacting process on the nearly $3 billion in state general funds that make up a portion of UC’s budget,” UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein wrote in an email statement.

Some faculty members said they are concerned that the new approach might not lead to decreases in University spending.

“There’s kind of a magic that’s attributed to zero-based budgeting, which I think probably is more so than its actual practice.” said Goetz Wolff, lecturer at the UCLA Department of Urban Planning and president of the UCLA branch of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents non-Academic Senate faculty.

He said he thinks the external pressure brought on by the new legislative process might allow careful examination of funds allocated to ladder faculty, lecturers and management.

“What happens is, managers hire submanagers, and submanagers hire additional managers, so what you have is a creation of certain explosion of management,” Wolff said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re carrying out the larger goal of the University: to speak to students and do research.”

Daniel Mitchell, professor emeritus at UCLA Anderson School of Management and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he thinks zero-based budgeting is a nice-sounding concept but is not practical.

Mitchell said he thinks the new approach shows the Legislature’s frustration with what some say is a lack of transparency in the budgeting process controlled by Brown and Napolitano. He added that he thinks the University is accepting zero-based budgeting as an empty gesture to improve its image.

“I’m sure there is some communication going on between the University and the legislative leaders, just because it’s good politics and good strategy for the University not to try to alienate people,” said Mitchell, who has studied California policies for years.

The subcommittee will discuss the budget further at its next meeting on March 3. Brown has until July 1 to pass the budget.

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