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Shawn Vestal: New law requires – eventually – more transparency in WSU sports deficits

WSU fans cheer for their team after the Cougars defeated Utah last November. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The new era of transparency in athletics spending is here at Washington State University, sort of, but it’s off to a vague start.

Which thrifty university department will be dipping into its savings account to provide a $20 million fig leaf for the profligate athletics department?

“Specific area #1,” according to an agenda packet for this week’s Board of Regents meeting.

Which department will put up $7 million to help cover the overspending of the Floyd-Moos-Leach era?

“Specific area #2.”

Which parts of the university will each fork over $5 million to fill the hole left by WSU’s keeping-up-with-the-Bruinses?

Specific areas #3 through #10.

It may not look like much, but when it comes to shining light on which WSU departments are covering the multimillion-dollar deficits in sports, this is progress. By the end of the fiscal year in June, WSU will present a more detailed plan to the Board of Regents for approval, outlining specifically which areas within the university will be back-stopping the sports programs. The increased reporting requirements – which also include a detailed three-year plan for erasing the deficit – are required under a new law sponsored during the last session by Sen. Andy Billig, among others.

“These transfers to cover the athletic department will now have to be done by an action of the regents, and that action has to be taken at a public meeting,” Billig said this week. “And that is a significant change from the past.”

The WSU Board of Regents meets in Spokane this week. One of its subcommittees will consider an incomplete, early draft proposal to make up for a $67 million deficit in the athletics department. The proposal so far does not identify where that money will come from when WSU balances its overall budget at the end of the fiscal year, but the university will be naming names by June.

Such information is required if people are to get a clearer picture of the way that the big-spending approach of the Elson Floyd and Bill Moos era has affected the rest of the university. Year after year, athletics has run multimillion-dollar deficits as a result of dramatic facilities expansions, big spending on coaches and frills, and less television income than expected.

The athletic department is still running a deficit, though it’s a smaller one – from an annual shortfall of $13 million a couple of years ago to just under $9 million in the current year, said Joan King, chief university budget officer.

King said the university is aiming to end sports deficits by 2022. Right now, “the deficit is increasing at a decreasing rate,” she said.

The university’s plan to gradually get sports back into the black relies on raising more revenue and cutting some spending, but not on big, painful cuts for athletics. Which means that every year at budget time, the budgetary “units” within the university that have surpluses are used to fill the gaps.

Those transfers are temporary – the funds are used to square the budget at reporting times but returned to the departments with surpluses immediately thereafter. In other words, sports will still have to pay down its own deficit in the long run, officials say, and the departments that are in the black will still have their surplus.

And yet the transfers do have an impact. A business college that accumulates a surplus, for example, can’t use that surplus now if it has to be booked against the athletics deficit.

“If you end up with a surplus and I end up with a deficit, you’re not allowed to spend your surplus,” said Phil Weiler, university vice president for marketing and communication.

In other words, the good stewards are paying the price for the big spenders.

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