Joco Opinion

Bob Sigman — Anti-education stance puts the squeeze on

In a few days young people enrolling at Kansas’ public universities will bear the brunt of higher tuition. This larger expense is the direct result of fiscal mismanagement by Gov. Sam Brownback and a punitive attitude toward higher education on the part of many ultraconservative Republican members of the Legislature.

Brownback unleashed a drive to reduce taxes by the hundreds of millions of dollars last year without knowing, or seeming to care, about the impact on essential state needs. An anti-tax legislative majority was eager to help.

The tax slashing led to a financial crisis in the 2013 Legislature. That gave the anti-education legislators the excuse they needed to squeeze the universities in this year’s session. And squeeze they did.

“The public needs to understand that the higher education budget was not cut just 1.5 percent” as the legislation provided, said Tim Emert, then chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents. “The total cuts to higher education are $48.7 million or 6.3 percent across two years, $23.3 million in fiscal 2014 (the current year) and $25.4 million in fiscal year 2015.”

He added: “At a time when more Kansans are turning to higher education to improve their lives, these cuts will be devastating.”

The latest reductions are part of a protracted, troubling pattern.

“For context, keep in mind that these cuts are on top of an almost 40 percent decline in (state) support per Kansas student over the last 15 years,” explained Joseph F. Monaco, associate director of Strategic Communications in the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Kansas.

And as the state’s share has plummeted, tuition has skyrocketed. The higher tuition rises, the more likely that families on low to middle incomes will be eliminated from access to higher education.

The cutbacks will have an adverse effect on education programs throughout the system.

Among the more worrisome are those that the Legislature inflicted on the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. At a time when Kansas faces a shortage of nurses, 20 fewer nursing student slots will be available, according to a med center analysis. Other medical education programs will be trimmed, including four medical residency positions. The Legislature is slicing away as an aging baby boomer generation requires more health care.

How can Brownback and his ultraconservative brethren in the Legislature be so ideologically warped as to not see the connection between health care needs and education?

Brownback’s role in crushing higher education is especially bothersome.

Early in the legislative session this year, he recommended that funding for the universities be held to the current level. Why? Because of the state’s tight fiscal condition brought on by his irresponsible tax cuts. In fact, more money was needed for higher education.

Meanwhile, the Legislature was proposing cuts of up to 4 percent.

In the spring, Brownback appeared at the universities to advocate for funding. For what purpose? Did he think people on the campuses needed to be convinced that higher appropriations were needed?

The universities were not the problem. Legislators with controlling votes should have been the target of Brownback’s lobbying.

In a showdown in the final days of the 2013 Legislature, Brownback failed to hold his position on flat funding. The ultraconservative legislative majority defied him, locking the destructive cuts into place.

Brownback and the legislative majority should be held accountable for slighting Kansas’ higher education.