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Proposed bill would put Washington Senate in charge of insolvent athletic departments

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 11, 2017, 10:26 p.m.

The House chamber is in session, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, on the opening day of the 2017 legislative session at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, right, stands during the Pledge of Allegiance, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in the Senate chamber on the opening day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., as pages and interns hold county flags from across Washington state. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – A new bill proposed in the Washington Legislature would give the state Senate the power of the purse over university athletic departments that are consistently insolvent.

Michael Baumgartner, a Republican state senator from Spokane, proposes that college athletics budgets that run deficits in three consecutive fiscal years will have to submit their budgets for review and approval by the Senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports committee.

“College sports play an important role in higher education, but we need to take a closer look at how schools are budgeting for these programs,” said Baumgartner, who is the committee chairman. “If they’re persistently underwater in terms of budgeting and over-relying on public subsidy, they need some oversight.”

Both the University of Washington and Washington State University athletic departments ran budget deficits in excess of $10 million last year. UW has had a deficit the last two years, and WSU has reported deficits every year since 2014.

New WSU president Kirk Schulz has proposed a plan that would have the athletic department back in the black by 2019.

Baumgartner has been one of the state’s most outspoken legislators on matters relating to college athletics. He took an active role lobbying on behalf of expelled WSU football player Robert Barber this past season, and in 2014 sponsored a senate resolution to honor the 1915 WSU national championship team.

“I’m a big fan of college athletics, but I have no doubt much of the public would appreciate a timeout on the arms race of college athletics spending,” Baumgartner said in a news release.

He used similar language in proposing his budget-oversight bill as he did in the Barber case, when he told WSU administrators, “If the university doesn’t want to fix it, we’ll fix it for them in the Legislature.”

Said Baumgartner in the news release Wednesday, “This bill gives our state’s universities a three-year runway from today to get their budgets balanced, and if they can’t do it, my committee will help do it for them.”

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