Kansas regents bemoan higher education spending cuts

TOPEKA – Kansas higher education officials said Thursday that the Legislature’s proposed funding cuts to public colleges and universities will hamper their ability to meet the business community’s needs for highly-skilled workers and will hurt the state’s economy as a result.

“It is not a pro-growth budget,” said Regent Vice Chair Fred Logan of Leawood.

Legislators finished their work early Sunday on the $14.5 billion state budget for each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015, imposing a 1.5 percent cut to higher education in each year. The plan also calls for a salary and wage cap, which education officials said compounds the cuts and will have an impact on programs and students.

Logan and others, including regent Robba Moran, wife of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, urged Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to veto the salary cap and lessen the financial impact of the spending cuts. The combined reduction of state general fund resources for higher education is estimated to total nearly $33 million over the two years.

“He needs to send a message to the Legislature that that kind of bad public policy isn’t going to be tolerated,” Logan said.

In recent years, Kansas has sought to increase the number of engineers and doctors it graduates in order to improve the state’s business climate and overall quality of life. The state has also focused on increasing the number of people earning vocational and technical certificates to meet the demands of industries, including wind energy and manufacturing. The regents said those initiatives were at risk before they had a chance to fully develop.

“If you want outstanding universities, you have to pay for them,” Moran said.

Brownback was seeking to keep higher education spending stable in 2014 and 2015. He went on a statewide tour to build support for the spending, saying the state system was building momentum in generating economic growth through renewed emphasis on engineering, medicine and changes in technical education.

The cuts were passed by legislators in light of massive cuts to income taxes approved in 2012 that will reduce state revenues in the coming years. To shore up spending and prevent deeper cuts legislators approved a tax bill Saturday that sets the state sales tax rate at 6.15 percent instead of allowing it to drop from the current 6.3 percent to 5.7 percent July 1, as it had been scheduled to do. The change will add an estimated $777 million to the state’s coffers over the next five years.

The board told university officials last month that they shouldn’t expect approval of tuition increases that would completely make up for cuts by the Legislature. University leaders made their initial pitches to the regents for raising tuition and fees. Regents will approve the requests later this summer.

Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott said officials at the southeast Kansas campus were initially proposing a 5.8 percent tuition increase but revised that number after the budget debate closed to seek a 7.4 percent bump. Scott said some of the reduced state resources were being replenished by $500,000 in cuts he imposed midway through the current year.