Don’t cut funding to higher education

Obsession with cutting income taxes is misguided

By The Mercury

Conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are determined to eliminate state income taxes — no matter what it costs.

Those costs are beginning to come clear. The House this morning approved a bill that, among other things, would cut funding to higher education and shift $300 million from highway projects for the next two years into the general fund. The purpose of those moves is to help offset the loss in revenue from last year’s income tax cuts.

As House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades said last week, “The tax cut we got as of Jan. 1 is going to cost us $400 million, so you have to make it go up in other ways.”

In other words, all manner of spending cuts will be necessary to enable conservatives and Gov. Sam Brownback to achieve their goal of doing away with the state income tax. Apart from the spending cuts, Kansans also can expect higher property taxes to generate revenue for essential services.

Rep. Rhoades, a Newton Republican, shrugged off the higher education funding cuts, saying Tuesday that Board of Regents institutions would raise tuition regardless of state funding. “They raise tuition because they want to. On higher education, it is out of control. At some point, we are going to hit the stone wall.”

So will thousands of Kansas families who already struggle to send children to Kansas State University and the other state universities. As for decisions to raise tuition, university officials are nowhere near as callous as Rep. Rhoades’ rhetoric. They know that tuition increases put higher education out of the reach of some bright young Kansans.

In fact, tuition increases stem in large part from the steady decline in the last generation in the percentage of state aid to higher education. As university officials told legislators earlier this week, university funding already has been cut by 15 percent in the last five years.  In addition to tuition increases, the number of course offerings will continue to decline and class size will increase further.

There was something of a reprieve for higher education in the House bill. It came when lawmakers approved an amendment to exempt the six main Regents institutions from the statewide salary cap. That will enable the universities to keep and attract additional outstanding faculty members and help KSU avoid a major obstacle on its quest to become a top-50 public research institution by 2025.

Ron Trewyn, KSU’s vice president for research, was among officials who testified against the proposed cuts. He pointed out that NBAF and companies that plan to operate near the “epicenter” of zoonotic research will generate a need for additional faculty and that a salary cap would “be devastating to those initiatives.”

Escaping the statewide salary cap would soften the financial blow for the Regents institutions, but Kansas State still would have to absorb a state funding cut of $6.7 million. That means a smaller step backward for higher education in Kansas, but it’s still a step backward.

Rep. Tom Phillips, a Manhattan Republican who opposed the higher education funding cuts, said, “I just cannot believe that the citizens of Kansas will believe that reducing the quality of education for our youth is something we want to do as a state.”

The quality of education is apparently just one of the costs of legislative conservatives’ obsession with income tax cuts.

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