Kansas lawmakers launch fact-finding tour of higher education campuses

The University of Kansas ranked 106th in U.S. News & World Reports’ 2012 ranking of the nation’s top 100 four-year research institutions, down from 101st last year.
The University of Kansas ranked 106th in U.S. News & World Reports’ 2012 ranking of the nation’s top 100 four-year research institutions, down from 101st last year.

Coming off a divisive budget debate this spring, Kansas legislators and higher education officials hope fact-finding visits to campuses this month by lawmakers will lessen tensions, but the groups have different goals ahead of the tour.

The Republican-controlled Legislature reduced funding for universities, community colleges and technical colleges by 3 percent overall for the fiscal year that began in July and kept it at about that level for the next fiscal year. When the Board of Regents imposed tuition increases for the fall, it pointedly calculated how much less the hikes would have been with no cuts.

Higher education officials said the tour starting Tuesday allows them to educate legislators about campus needs, showcase strong programs and demonstrate efficient operations.

“I’m hopeful that the tour will help them understand the good management decisions that are being made,” Fort Hays State University President Ed Hammond said.

The conservative Republicans who control both legislative chambers want to build relationships as well. But they’ve also committed the state to cutting personal income taxes, believing it will stimulate economic growth, and are looking for information that helps them rein in spending.

“Maybe this will give us a dialogue between the Legislature and the presidents and the faculty,” said Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Coldwater Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. “We’re definitely going in a different direction than we have in the past.”

House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committee members leave the statehouse early Tuesday for trips to the Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka and Emporia State University. They'll tour another eight campuses over five additional days, ending Oct. 30.

“Legislators will undoubtedly learn something about the university system they didn’t know, and the folks on the campuses will have a better understanding of what the legislators are looking for,” said Board of Regents member Ed McKechnie, a southeast Kansas railroad executive who served 10 years in the Kansas House as a Democrat.

In cutting higher education funding, Republican legislators defied GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who’d pushed them to preserve flat funding. Lawmakers’ decisions cost the campuses $46 million in state funds over two years.

Total state funding for the higher education system will be about $751 million for the current and next fiscal years. That’s a drop of more than $100 million from the high-water mark of nearly $853 million set by legislators in 2008.

And tuition is climbing. The standard rate for a full-time undergraduate student from Kansas at the University of Kansas is nearly 36 percent higher than it was five years ago, and tuition for the same type of student has jumped nearly 32 percent at Kansas State University during the same period.

Regents have said they’ve been forced into imposing larger tuition increases than they’ve wanted to help fill gaps in state funding. In turn, some conservative legislators have suggested that the regents are too quick to hike tuition when it’s possible they could find efficiencies.

“I think there was frustration in both directions,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican who serves on the Ways and Means Committee and as Education Committee chairman. “We have to have — develop — a common vision of what it means to be educated in the state of Kansas.”