After months of back-and-forth with lawmakers, University of Massachusetts president Martin T. Meehan felt sure he had secured $10.9 million to pay overdue raises promised to staff and professors. After all, Meehan figured, he could count on backing from Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, a UMass graduate considered one of the system’s staunchest Beacon Hill allies.
Meehan was in for a shock. When it was time to vote, the money was conspicuously absent from the Senate bill.
The failure of Rosenberg’s Senate to come to UMass’ rescue last week has perplexed many on Beacon Hill, introduced tension between two traditional allies, and raised the prospect of future turmoil for the system.
Perhaps more important, the missing $10.9 million will mean midyear budget cuts across the five campuses, including $5 million to the flagship campus in Amherst, where Meehan and Rosenberg led the homecoming parade together two and a half weeks ago. Severe cuts could jeopardize the system’s precarious bond rating.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, so I’m not in a position to draw conclusions,” Meehan said, adding that he has “known the Senate president for 30 years, and I know that he has an affinity for the University of Massachusetts.”
Rosenberg, who as Senate president has broad sway in a bill’s success or failure, offered an explanation Monday why the Senate Ways and Means Committee scuttled the funding, tracing the issue back to a dispute over student fees.
In August, Rosenberg surprised Meehan and UMass trustees with a public letter calling on them to reduce the fees, which rose this year by about $900 per student, the first such increase in three years.
“We were concerned what was happening with student charges,” said Rosenberg, who over the years has advocated for more funding for UMass and new buildings on the Amherst campus and this year helped pass a bill to change the way tuition is collected.
Rosenberg said Meehan’s predecessor, Robert Caret, promised him that if UMass received an increase in state funding this year, which it did, it would consider lowering student fees.
“It didn’t happen, then when the $10.9 million came up . . . the Ways and Means Committee made the judgment that at that point they weren’t going to move forward with it at that time,” Rosenberg said.
The Ways and Means chairwoman, Karen Spilka, has declined to say why the UMass contracts weren’t funded, saying in a statement that she is “willing to work with president Meehan to identify a holistic approach to helping UMass meet all of its financial obligations and making sure students and families have access to high-quality, affordable educational opportunities.”
The spending bill did fund $8.8 million in contractual raises for employees of the nine state universities, which operate separately from UMass. Those campuses agreed to cut student costs next semester, Rosenberg said.
It also awarded $2.5 million for Framingham State University, which is in Spilka’s district, to purchase a nearby conference center.
UMass trustees said they are baffled and frustrated with the Senate. Chairman Victor Woolridge rejected Rosenberg’s correlation of fees and contractual raises, calling them “apples and oranges.”
“I can’t get into his head and explain it,” Woolridge said Tuesday. “We’ve been in regular communication and we still are. We’re still hopeful that something can still happen, but I think the light is getting a little dim now.”
Another trustee, Edward W. Collins Jr., was more direct. “What happened is easy, they stiffed us. But why or how it occurred is a mystery to me,” Collins said.
Rosenberg said the matter could be taken up this winter in another spending bill the Legislature may debate, and he rejected the idea that his support for the university has dwindled.
Meehan, who was installed as president of the system this summer, said that even if UMass were to receive the money in a future bill, cuts would still be necessary because the $10.9 million is to cover a deficit from last year’s budget.
If the money did come later, it could fund extra scholarships, Meehan said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who represent districts with UMass campuses now find themselves in an unusual predicament. Without wanting to cross their leader, Rosenberg, they must also answer to constituents who work at or attend UMass or are alumni.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, as are our people at the University of Massachusetts Lowell,” said Eileen Donoghue, a Lowell Democrat who added that she hopes the funding issue does not foreshadow other problems.
“I would be very, very concerned if there was an erosion of the state support for public higher education,” said Donoghue, a UMass Lowell graduate who co-sponsored an amendment to fund the $10.9 million.
Senator Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat whose district includes the medical school, said she opposed funding the $10.9 million because there were more important priorities in the bill, namely replenishing the state’s emergency savings account.
The Senate successfully pushed to deposit $120 million into the rainy day fund, more than both the House and governor suggested.
“We all love and admire the work that is done at UMass, but we want to make sure that we have the money for the future,” said Chandler, adding that
UMass is the largest employer in her district.
Chandler and others pointed out that UMass this year received a 4 percent increase to its overall state funding from last year. UMass has an overall budget of $3 billion and receives $531 million in state support.
Additionally, in March, the system received $2.2 million toward the contract costs, which totaled $13.1 million.