SPRINGFIELD — The General Assembly’s inability to overhaul the state’s pension mess has left universities looking at a state aid cut of about 4.6 percent next year.

That possible reduction, just the latest in a decade-long decline in state assistance for higher education, could again mean a new round of tuition hikes, hiring freezes or larger class sizes.

The number was included as part of a budget projection released by Gov. Pat Quinn, who says without action by the legislature, the state’s rising pension costs will mean less spending in other areas of government in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Complete details on the governor’s proposed budget are not expected to be released until late February or early March when Quinn delivers his spending plan to lawmakers.

— Kurt Erickson

The governor is projecting a $400 million cut in education spending and reductions to other programs because of a $1 billion jump in how much money must be spent on employee pensions.

For more than a year, the governor has prodded the House and Senate to find a way to fix the pension problem.

“The elephant in the room is not going to go away,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Wednesday.

At Southern Illinois University, President Glenn Poshard said a reduction in state aid would follow a pattern set in motion a decade ago under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“We’ll probably see some substantial cuts,” Poshard said. “There’s no way that can not affect you.“

In addition, he said financial uncertainty in Congress remains a threat to research funding and financial aid for students.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in Washington, D.C.,” Poshard said.

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At Illinois State University, President Al Bowman predicted the ongoing financial crunch last year and called on university financial experts to work through potential scenarios when it comes to decreased state funding.

“There’s been uncertainty for years in the state budget for higher education, which is one reason President Bowman called for a long-range financial planning process during his State of the University address in September,” ISU spokesman Jay Groves said. “That planning process continues to this day.“

Western Illinois University Budget Director Matt Bierman estimated the reduction could cost the university about $2.4 million in funding after weathering a 6.1 percent reduction in the current fiscal year.

He called the situation “a little better than bleak” but said no specific plans have been made to deal with the decline.

“I think everything is on the table,” Bierman said.