A state senator has proposed a bill that would hold colleges accountable for athletic department deficits

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With the athletic departments of Washington’s two biggest public colleges reporting budget deficits two years in a row, state Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) is proposing a bill that will subject college athletics budgets to legislature approval if their athletic departments run deficits for three consecutive years.

Washington State’s athletics department has reported deficits of about $13 million in each of the last two fiscal years, while UW’s athletics department projected a deficit of about $15 million for the 2016 fiscal year, but that figure was later updated to about a $7 or $8 million deficit. Last year, new WSU President Kirk Schulz also proposed a plan that he believes will get WSU’s athletic department solvent by 2019.

Under the new bill Baumgartner is proposing, if a college athletic department cannot get back in the black after three consecutive years, its budget will have to be reviewed and approved by the Commerce, Labor and Sports committee before it can be adopted by the college.

Baumgartner announced his bill proposal in a news release Wednesday morning which stated that “repeated issues with mismanaged budgets at University of Washington and Washington State University.”

“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 the news release. “This is about ensuring the long-term viability of these programs that give our state’s students so many opportunities. 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.”

Baumgartner is chair of the senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports committee and a member of the Higher Education Committee, and he’s always taken an interest in athletics and the university setting.

This past fall, Baumgartner was a vocal supporter of former WSU football player Robert Barber in his fight against the suspension handed down by WSU’s student conduct board. In an open public meeting with the WSU board of regents, Baumgartner bluntly instructed them to fix what he called a broken student conduct product.

Now, Baumgartner is once again casting a spotlight on university processes.

“The overriding goal is to bring transparency and public oversight to the use of public resources,” Baumgartner said in a phone interview with The Seattle Times. “I think sports is an important part of the university experience, but within balance and reason. More than determining the outcome, I want to make sure public dollars are protected.”

Now that the bill has been introduced, it will be assigned to the Commerce, Labor and Sports committee. Next, Baumgartner says he plans to invite the athletic directors of all public four-year institutions of higher education to meet with the committee and explain their fiscal situations.