Steve Rose

Brownback holds the line on higher education

Updated: 2013-06-05T22:54:08Z

By STEVE ROSE

Special to The Star

Reasonable people can differ on Sam Brownback’s policies.

But reasonable people should not disagree that the conservative Kansas governor has gone to the mat over higher education, and that he has made a total commitment to fulfill his campaign pledge to make higher education a cornerstone of his administration.

In his quest to hold the line on state funding for higher education, Brownback has barnstormed 11 universities and community colleges in less than two weeks to send a clear message: “Let’s keep the momentum going” with higher education.

Brownback is faced with a recalcitrant state House that wants to slash higher education funding by 4 percent across-the-board, as well as implement a salary cap on faculty. In the state Senate, Brownback faces a less hostile body, but it still wants to cut higher education funding by 2 percent. Brownback wants no cuts at all. He wants to hold the line on spending on funding for higher education.

Consider this: Universities throughout Kansas are already functioning at funding levels equal to where they were in 2002, because of previous steep cuts in funding by past Legislatures.

Brownback recognizes the importance of higher education to keep the state competitive and to turn out a well-trained workforce.

In addition, Brownback knows that research is a key to maintaining excellent universities.

The governor has also proposed a $10 million expansion at the University of Kansas Medical Center for a new health education building.

The Legislature, at this point, seems to be balking about that facility expansion. But Brownback is not giving up. He is fighting hard for this facility to produce more badly needed doctors.

Some members of the Legislature apparently believe higher education is not all that important to Kansas.

Brownback sees higher education as a core service that must be protected, and he has said so. In other words, higher education is not fluff. It is the bedrock of our state’s quality of life.

Where does Brownback go from here?

This coming week, the Kansas Legislature returns for its “veto” session. It really is far more significant this year. The Legislature must adopt a balanced budget before adjournment. Lawmakers also will face an important tax issue.

That issue is whether to extend past July a sales tax hike passed in 2010. That decision may have a lot to do with the ultimate fate of funding for higher education.

There are valid reasons for keeping the sales tax at the 6.3 percent as it is because the state needs the revenue. There are also valid reasons to roll it back to 5.7 percent because it was sold as a temporary tax increase.

Ultimately, to save higher education, keeping the sales tax where it is trumps the promises to lower it.

What is paramount is that the leader of Kansas has put forth a monumental effort to keep away devastating cuts to higher education.

The chancellor of the University of Kansas said the results of those cuts would be “severe” and would require a series of unfortunate cutbacks.

It is up to conservative legislators to heed the words of the most effective conservative officeholder in Kansas history.

Brownback is speaking to all Kansans, but his message is particularly important for the legislators: Higher education is crucial to the state’s future.

Conservative legislators like to say they’re pro-growth. If they’re serious about that, now is the time for them to follow the governor’s lead.

A state that doesn’t value higher education is going nowhere.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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