Puerto Rico governor aims to pare cuts at public university

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By Nick Brown | NEW YORK

NEW YORK Puerto Rico’s governor proposed
measures on Monday to reduce anticipated budget cuts at the
University of Puerto Rico to $241 million by fiscal year 2021,
from $450 million approved by the struggling U.S. territory’s
fiscal oversight board.

The measures, outlined by Governor Ricardo Rossello in a
letter to the board, include transferring to the university some
of the savings generated by upcoming cuts to healthcare
spending; allowing the university to earn revenue by training
public employees; and working with the island’s Science and
Technology Trust to monetize the university’s patents, which UPR
has historically struggled to do.

The school’s fate is a sensitive issue locally, with student
groups threatening strikes over the cuts. UPR’s budget has
already been slashed by $348 million over the last three fiscal
years, according to Rossello’s letter.

Its troubles are entangled with broad economic distress in
the U.S. territory, where almost half the population lives in
poverty and unemployment is more than twice the U.S. average. As
the island buckles under $70 billion in debt, public healthcare
and pension systems edge toward insolvency, and locals flock to
the mainland United States.

The territory’s finances are under the oversight of a
federally appointed board, which some local critics condemn as an extension of its colonial legacy. The board’s recommended
austerity measures have drawn protests on the island.

‘DRAMATIC NEGATIVE’

The board has urged reduced government subsidies, staff cuts
and tuition fee hikes at UPR, the 11-campus, 70,000-student
university that has produced four of the island’s ex-governors.

The full $450 million cut would be a “dramatic negative”
that would be “difficult for the university to absorb,” leaving
it with a $157 million operating deficit, Moody’s Investors
Service said in a note on Monday.

Hiking tuition is hard “given the highly price-sensitive
student population,” Moody’s said. It added that while it
expects UPR to make its $32 million debt payment on June 1,
subsequent payments could be missed because the university
stopped transferring money into trusts for debt payments under
Puerto Rico’s 2016 emergency debt moratorium.

Some economists say the school has room to trim fat.

Arnaldo Cruz, co-founder of the San Juan-based think tank
Center for Integrity and Public Policy, said UPR spends too much
on non-faculty positions and that its 11 campuses are too many
on an island of 3.5 million. “We think that does not make sense
on such a small island with a population in decline,” Cruz said.



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