April 22, 2013

Gov. Sam Brownback opposes budget cuts for universities

Gov. Sam Brownback called proposed cuts to higher-education funding “a momentum killer” Monday after meeting with Wichita State University officials in Wichita.

Gov. Sam Brownback called proposed cuts to higher-education funding “a momentum killer” Monday after meeting with Wichita State University officials in Wichita.

Brownback, who says he wants to maintain current levels of funding, met privately with WSU president John Bardo and other university officials, as well as two members of the state Board of Regents. It was his first stop on a tour of state universities to build support for his proposed budget.

Legislators are calling for cuts of 2 percent to 4 percent in higher education as negotiators try to find ways to cut spending in the wake of income tax cuts Brownback signed into law last year.

Brownback said lawmakers don’t have to choose between higher education and tax cuts.

“We can fund higher education in the state of Kansas at the current levels, and we can have a competitive tax structure,” he said. “But to do that, we’re going to have to continue the sales tax where it is now, and we’re going to have to continue changes to move toward a flat tax system, but we can do this. I think it’s the wrong way for us to be looking at cutting higher education.”

New state tax revenue estimates released last week show the tax cuts will lead to sharp declines in income. Brownback is pushing to keep the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent instead of allowing it to drop as scheduled to 5.7 percent in July. He also wants to cut income taxes further.

House Republican leaders say they have no appetite for extending the sales tax and have proposed a 4 percent cut in funding for regents universities. Monday, those leaders issued a written statement saying that rising tuition rates have put a burden on Kansas families and that universities need to be more accountable for their budgets.

Brownback said WSU has gained momentum for growth.

“You want to build on that, and we can build on things that are happening here, and we don’t need that momentum to subside,” he said. ”We need to grow. That’s what I’m pushing, and I think we got a good chance of getting this on through.”

Brownback found a supportive audience at Wichita State. Bardo said stabilizing the budget would allow WSU hire quality faculty. He cited beginning engineering salaries that have risen from $72,000 two years ago to more than $80,000.

“We’re trying to hire a quarter of our engineering faculty, and we’re seeing cost changes,” he said.

Bardo said funding cuts aren’t just about finding inefficiencies in universities, but call into question the role universities play in the state. WSU needs to be active in technology-based development for the state, serve the state’s health care needs and make sure its core education in areas such as humanities, social sciences, critical thinking and communications is solid.

“It takes the budget that we have to make that happen,” Bardo said.

Board of Regents member Christine Downey-Schmidt of Inman, who also attended the meeting, said higher education spending has taken an 11 percent cut since 2008, essentially returning to 2002 levels, while inflation was 25 percent over 10 years.

“That formula just doesn’t work if you want to grow jobs and fill jobs with higher paying wages and create new jobs,” she said.

Another board member who attended the meeting, Robba Moran, wife of Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, cited WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research program.

“A good faculty’s not cheap, good programs are not cheap, and we’re trying to do everything we can to promote economic development in this state,” she said.

Brownback also said he doesn’t want the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita to go from a four-year program back to a two-year program, as University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little warned last week. It expanded to a four-year program in 2011.

“We don’t need to cut that. If they have base state aid — flat funding — that program can continue as is,” he said. “It’s a key program for Wichita and also for a lot of rural areas in the state.”

Brownback said a number of new lawmakers who haven’t studied higher-education budgets before have questions about it.

“Those questions are legitimate,” he said, “but at the end of the day we need to keep it at a stable funding level.”

But House leaders said universities have been asking for more money from families and taxpayers ever year.

“Historically, Kansas families have borne the brunt of university budgets that continue to increase every year through both higher tuition rates and state taxes,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, in the statement. “The House budget plan found savings across all areas of state government, including the Regents, that will ensure our ability to keep the tax burden on Kansas families low.”

Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoads, R-Newton, said he knows the value of higher education; he is a former on-campus college instructor who now teaches mostly online. “Just because an institution provides a valuable service to our state does not mean they should avoid being accountable for taxpayer dollars.”

The Senate has proposed a 2 percent cut for regents universities. Legislators will resume budget negotiations when they return to Topeka on May 8.

Brownback planned to meet with Butler Community College officials after his visit to Wichita State.

He also plans visits to the University of Kansas on Tuesday, Pittsburg State University on Wednesday, the KU School of Medicine and Kansas City Kansas Community College on Thursday, and Washburn and Emporia State universities on Friday.

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