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Higher education cuts loom amid Kansas tax changes

Updated: 2013-03-20T05:46:04Z

By BRAD COOPER

The Kansas City Star

— Kansas colleges and universities could lose millions in state funding as lawmakers struggle to balance state spending with tax cuts.

House and Senate budgets look to chop $25 million to $30 million from the state’s six major universities and its technical and community colleges.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s call to pay for tax cuts enacted last year, and for even deeper cuts in the future, looms in the talks over higher education budgeting.

“We say we pride ourselves on higher education, yet we’re cutting funding for (higher education) so that our students will have more difficulty getting to college,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat.

Yet Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers have few other places to find savings at a time when the Legislature looks to lower income taxes.

He said higher education is a better option than cutting spending on the medical services for the poor or elementary and secondary education. He said tuition increases can be an option if universities want to spend more.

“You only have a limited number of pots to go to,” Masterson said.

The cuts could mean higher tuition, larger class sizes, a limited ability to recruit top-shelf faculty and programs being curtailed or eliminated.

“A budget reduction will eventually fall on the students,” Washburn University president Jerry Farley told legislators this week.

But from a much broader view, school officials told lawmakers, cuts in higher education will stymie efforts to foster a climate for economic growth and academic achievement that would make Kansas an ideal location for business.

“This is a signal to the marketplace that the state does not see higher education as an engine of economic development, innovation and discovery,” said Steven F. Warren, vice chancellor of research and graduate studies at the University of Kansas.

The $14.5 billion House budget that won tentative approval Tuesday would make its cuts with 4 percent across-the-board reductions.

Meanwhile, the Senate is looking at $25 million in higher education cuts it finds in a 2 percent across-the-board reduction along with other, more specific spending reductions.

Among other things, the Senate has proposed eliminating $10 million for a health education building at the University of Kansas Medical Center and trimming $2.5 million from the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

The cuts proposed for higher education invoked an ongoing debate about income tax cuts enacted last year despite projections the move would blow holes in the state budget.

The Legislature is back this year looking for ways to pay for last year’s tax cut and finance even deeper cuts in the coming years.

Masterson conceded that the higher education cuts might stem from the tax cuts.

“If we had not cut taxes, yes, we could have continued to spend more money,” said Masterson, an Andover Republican. “But that puts us in a Catch-22: The higher (tax) burden you got, the slower your economy recovers.”

Consider a few examples of what the House budget might mean. The University of Kansas’ Lawrence campus would lose about $5.5 million, and the KU Medical Center would lose $4.2 million. Kansas State University would take a $6.7 million hit.

Closer to home, Johnson County Community College would lose about $886,000 while Kansas City Kansas Community College would be out about $430,000.

The House proposal is a marked departure from Brownback’s proposed budget. It would have kept funding for the regents system essentially flat with some enhancements, such as the money for the medical building at the medical center.

If the Legislature ultimately agrees to cut higher education, it will represent a continuing trend of reducing money for the state’s colleges and universities since 2008.

Overall state funding for higher education has fallen to $763.4 million this year from $829.1 million in 2008 — a reduction of about 8 percent.

The proposed 4 percent cut puts more pressure on universities to look at tuition increases, officials said.

“That 4 percent hits us right in the gut in regard to our ability to keep tuition down,” said Larry Gould, provost and chief academic officer at Fort Hays State University.

But it’s not just tuition.

Johnson County Community College president Terry Calaway said the college would need to look at eliminating some career and technical programs that tend to require more pricey equipment.

Washburn’s president predicted that his school would lose eight teaching positions, which could mean larger class sizes and the offering of some courses only every other year.

Kansas State spokesman Jeff Morris said the cuts “certainly would affect our tuition discussions and make for some difficult decisions.”

Republican Rep. Marc Rhoades of Newton, the House appropriations committee chairman, believes that the higher education spending needs to be reined in, especially in the context of rising tuition.

“Why are they increasing tuition by $48 million?” Rhoades asked. “I would submit to you that higher ed is out of control. … The system needs to change.”

Rhoades said lawmakers should ignore any warnings from colleges that they will seek tuition increases because of cuts in state funding.

“Don’t talk to me about me about the fact they’re … going to raise tuition,” Rhoades said. “They do that anyway.”

State data show that tuition has increased 37 percent at the University of Kansas from 2008 to 2013. Kansas State tuition rose about 30 percent.

But Tim Caboni, the vice chancellor for public affairs at KU, noted that spending per pupil at the university is down about 40 percent since 1999 when adjusted for inflation.

As per-student funding drops, he said, tuition increases.

And because KU’s instructional budget is made up of tuition and state tax dollars, there aren’t a lot of places to go to raise money, Caboni said.

“As one decreases, almost necessarily the other one will grow,” Caboni said. “What does that mean for people’s ability to afford a world-class higher education in the state of Kansas?”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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