Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Kansas budget calamity closes in on the state’s universities

In better times, Gov. Sam Brownback enjoyed a visit to Wichita State University.
In better times, Gov. Sam Brownback enjoyed a visit to Wichita State University. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas has not been one of the Republican governors to declare war on higher education.

He hasn’t imposed vengeful cuts on a flagship university, as the Missouri General Assembly is currently threatening to do to Mizzou. He hasn’t launched a right-wing attack on state-funded higher education, as GOP Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin. He hasn’t tried to micromanage educational policy, as his pal, former Gov. Rick Perry, did in Texas.

On the contrary, he has worked within the severe constraints of his busted budget to keep funding for Kansas colleges and universities as steady as possible. He even has recommended freeing up money for special projects, like the Health Education Building at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

But with his stubborn insistence on deep and unproductive tax cuts, Brownback has damaged the state’s colleges and universities as surely as if he had set out to do so.

This week, after the February revenue report showed Kansas nearly $54 million short of projections for the month, Brownback announced an immediate overall 3 percent budget cut for Kansas universities.

In total, that’s about $17 million, with the University of Kansas and Kansas State University taking the biggest hits.

For the schools, the news was like telling a person on a low-calorie diet that the meal plan was being cut.

Two weeks ago, Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz advised students and staff in an open letter that the budget situation was “not the best.” He announced a 2 percent cut for all university units and warned of more cuts next year.

Schulz’s letter outlined the problems:

Financial support from the state of Kansas has remained flat or decreased in all seven years he’s been at the helm.

Reserve funds are dwindling, utility bills are rising and after eight years of record enrollment the university saw a decline this year. Fewer students mean less revenue from tuition and fees.

On top of all that, the Kansas Legislature tied the hands of all of its colleges and universities last year with a tuition cap. As they sought to wrap up a chaotic session, lawmakers decreed that schools cannot increase tuition beyond the rate of inflation plus 2 percent, even if state funding decreases.

And now it has.

In announcing the reduced funding, Brownback said he would not reverse the destructive tax cuts that have caused a chronic state budget crisis.

“Our goal is not to fund the growth of state government; it is to help the Kansas economy grow,” he said.

Steve Scott, the president of Pittsburg State University, responded to that comment:

“We share that goal, and it’s evident we are contributing to its realization,” he said in a statement.

“However, this latest reduction in funding will impact our ability to contribute to the Governor’s goal.”

States that cripple their higher education systems have a death wish. That’s especially true for a place like Kansas, which is fighting years of population decline outside of urban hubs.

When their state universities are forced through budget cuts to raise tuition and offer fewer opportunities, bright young people look elsewhere.

So do inspiring professors and researchers who are capable of pumping millions of dollars into the economy through grants, discoveries, patents and spin-off projects.

Brownback seems to get that. A few years ago he embarked on a tour of campuses in an unsuccessful attempt to convince lawmakers to restore funding cuts that the Legislature had imposed on higher education.

I suspect the governor regrets what he did this week. Just not enough to admit that his tax cuts are strangling Kansas’ most valuable institutions without achieving any of the results he promised.