Joco Opinion

State’s commitment to education is hurt by legislative meddling

Updated: 2013-04-16T22:03:51Z

By BOB SIGMA N

The Kansas City Star

After meeting from early January to early April, the 2013 Kansas Legislature failed to resolve major fiscal challenges, among them whether to extend a six-tenths of a cent sales tax increase that is to expire June 30. Nor did the Legislature pass the annual budget before it took a monthlong recess.

One of the main purposes of the recess is to allow budget officials time to examine the Legislature’s document and report corrections that might need to be made. But there is no budget to examine and, to complicate matters, the Legislature left other issues hanging.

As a result, far-reaching decisions will be jammed into what is supposed to be a brief veto session scheduled for early May.

Summed up, the Legislature spent a lot of time trying to deal with a severe budget shortfall caused by last year’s out-of-control tax reductions. In addition, it took plenty of time to focus on an ultraconservative agenda, heavy with anti-abortion measures. If you lean to the right, you should be pleased. If not, the outlook is gloomy.

It seems picayune to dwell on the mass of trivial bills that floated about in the ultraconservative-dominated Legislature. Individually, they certainly deserve no mention at all. Yet collectively the bills are significant for what they reveal: a mind-set totally out of sync with the state’s needs, and a startling absence of what responsible, forward-looking legislators should be about.

Many of the proposals meddle in affairs that are outside the Legislature’s realm. They show an urge to control most anything that strikes the fancy of the sponsors. These sponsors govern by whim, spurred by emotional tangents and ideological underpinnings.

Out of the blue, a Wichita-area legislator wanted to force the University of Kansas and Kansas State University basketball teams to play Wichita State University. It is not, by any stretch, the business of the Kansas Legislature to dictate athletic schedules. It is in fact, a distracting waste of legislative time.

Supporters of this proposal should instead be concentrating on how the state can adequately fund its financially starved public universities.

It is this type of tripe that puts the Legislature at odds with the citizens of Kansas. And detracts from and endangers a tightly held commitment to accessible, affordable education.

It isn’t as though members of the Legislature weren’t exposed to insightful information.

In February, University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little appeared before a legislative committee seeking a decent level of funding. She was a voice in the wilderness.

“In actual dollars, KU received slightly less in state general fund revenues in FY 2013 (the current fiscal year) than it did in FY 2006,’’ she said. “Adjusted for inflation, KU’s state funding is down $124.4 million over the past 14 years.’’

Indeed, KU’s per student funding from the state general fund has plunged nearly 40 percent in the last 14 years. In turn, tuition has risen sharply, making it more difficult for low and middle income families to afford higher education.

The chancellor also told legislators that research at KU is helping create new tech-age businesses. In fiscal year 2011 KU scientists conducted $256.1 million in research. Most of that money came from outside the state, boosting the economy.

Measured between 2006 and 2010, the median income of Kansans with bachelor’s degrees was $45,343 a year. That is $17,000 above the median of high school graduates. Holders of graduate or professional degrees earned $58,212.

Legislators claiming they want to generate jobs should heed Gray-Little.

If they would tune into reality, they could see that higher education in Kansas is an economic development tool. Graduates are stimulating the economy and thus state revenues.

Legislators should be investing heavily in KU and the entire Board of Regents system, rather than moving to cut funding.

Sadly, the GOP ruling majority lacks the vision to build a vibrant economy.

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Freelance columnist Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star Editorial Board, writes in this space once a month.

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