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Opinion | Rachelle G. Cohen

Marty Meehan huffs and puffs over budget impasse

UMass President Marty Meehan gives a “State of the University” speech at the UMass Club in Boston in 2018.
UMass President Marty Meehan gives a “State of the University” speech at the UMass Club in Boston in 2018.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File)

The University of Massachusetts has often led a charmed budgetary life on Beacon Hill. That was certainly the case during the Bill Bulger years (there’s nothing like having an ex-Senate president at the helm). And when Amherst-based Stan Rosenberg ran things in the Senate, either as chair of Ways and Means or later as Senate president, his UMass loyalties were abundantly clear.

But there are new players on the Hill now, and they appear to be weary of the empire building — and the whining — of UMass President Marty Meehan. And of his willingness to balance the university’s budget on the backs of debt-ridden students.

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In his debut budget, Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues last week served notice that he’s pretty much had it with Meehan’s way of doing business. He included in that budget language that would freeze in-state tuition and fees for the upcoming school year.

“We’ve heard a lot, we’ve had a lot of discussions in this building about the stifling debt that students are graduating with and the high cost of higher education,” Rodrigues said at a budget briefing. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve invested this many new dollars in the UMass system — a 7 percent increase, [so] that there should be no need to increase tuition to the students and families of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

But for Meehan the sky is always falling – and he immediately goes to his default position, which amounts to: Give us every last dime we asked for or the kids take the hit – again.

Governor Charlie Baker, the House, and now the Senate are all in agreement on the budget number for the five-campus (well, six if you throw in the former Mount Ida campus) system. But the $558 million they are offering is $10.2 million less than Meehan insists he needs — and, yes, that means he was already planning to hike tuition 2.5 percent.

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So it’s the tuition-freeze language Meehan is now fighting with all of his considerable political skills. “Once that precedent is established,” he told the Globe editorial board, “it’s a dangerous precedent.”

Meehan and the university’s chancellors now say that without the additional $10.2 million and with the Senate restrictions, the four undergraduate campuses would be in a $22 million hole.

Each time Rodrigues points to the $39 million budget increase, Meehan points to a $34 million increase in UMass expenses attributed to a collective bargaining agreement for faculty. But Senate sources argue “every other state agency anticipates collective bargaining agreements. Every other state agency learns to live within a budget.”

A few other issues remain just below the surface of the budget controversy. One raised its ugly head in the House when Rep. Tackey Chan (D-Quincy) proposed an amendment – unsuccessful in the end — requiring a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits for all UMass Boston “provosts, associate provosts, deans and the chancellor.”

There’s also the inconvenient fact that of the top 66 highest paid state employees (their 2018 salaries are listed under the state’s CThru system), 65 are on the UMass payroll – the top dozen or so with incomes above or very near the half million dollar mark. Not exactly the way to win fans among legislators who have to explain to their constituents why their kids might have to come up with another $350 or so in tuition for the fifth year in a row.

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Meehan also burned a few legislative bridges with last year’s surprise $75 million purchase of the Newton campus of the failing Mount Ida College. Now designated as an annex to distant UMass Amherst, it continues to generate anxiety among faculty at the Boston campus a mere 15 miles away.

The former Lowell congressman has managed to get his way more often than not with equal parts political savvy, charm and, if need be, bullying. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if he took the hint from the Senate and agreed to live within the budget just this once in return for the possibility of a negotiated deal not to raise tuition and fees this year? How difficult is that?


Rachelle G. Cohen can be reached at Rachelle.Cohen@Globe.com