Legislature looks at cuts to higher ed

By Bryan Richardson

With House budget discussions beginning Tuesday and the Senate starting its budget discussions Wednesday, officials pled their case Monday for the Legislature not to make cuts to higher education.

Both the Kansas House and Senate are considering budgets that would reduce higher education spending. The House is considering a 4-percent cut to higher education and a cap of salaries and wages for all for state government agencies. The Senate is considering a 2-percent cut to higher education.

Higher education officials spoke to the House Education Budget Subcommittee on Monday about the variety of ways the House proposals would affect institutions.

Ron Trewyn, K-State’s vice president for research, spoke on behalf of the university.

Kansas State would lose $18.8 million, including $6.7 million due to the 4-percent cut; and $11.9 million due to capping salaries.

Trewyn said the areas where the university would be hurt include meeting its K-State 2025 initiative, which is to become a top-50 public research institution by 2025.

A part of the plan includes increasing faculty research awards. These awards have grown from $55.8 million in 1998 to $137.4 million in 2012, including a high of $147.6 million in 2010.

“We have to grow those awards by another two-and-a-half fold, which means bringing in lots more people into the institution to support these activities,” Trewyn said.

Trewyn also mentioned that the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility coming to Manhattan will create a need for increased faculty. He said the university is having conversations with animal health companies looking to do business near the “epicenter” of infectious zoonotic disease research.

“To meet this goal, we’re going to have to hire more people,” he said. “The issue of salary cap would be devastating to those initiatives.”

Greg Goode, president of Salina Area Technical College and Kansas Association of Technical Colleges, said technical colleges would be faced with cutting personnel or programs if there were additional cuts. He said the colleges operate with 10 percent less funding in 2013 than in 2007 despite many growing in size.

Goode said Manhattan Area Technical College, which has doubled in size since 2005, had to dip into reserves for the first time to finish out the year.

Higher education officials said the issues with a salary cap include current contracts being negotiated to bring in new faculty, faculty members currently receiving partial pay while on sabbatical and decreasing the chances of attracting high-quality, high-demand researchers.

The officials also explained that the budget for a higher education institution has many specialized funds that legally can only be used in specific areas, which makes a 4-percent cut from the state bigger than people realize. They said this likely puts institutions under more pressure to raise tuition to meet needs.

Rep. Ron Highland, who is on the education budget subcommittee, said he agreed with the testimonies, particularly that university research is important with NBAF coming along.

“If we’re going to compete, we do have to draw the best minds, we have to have the best laboratories, or we’re not going to expand the base in our state,” he said.

However, Highland said there are other financial issues to consider including addressing the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System debt, which is why he still needs to do more researching before coming to a decision.

“We have to balance that out,” he said. “Where’s the money going to come from? As a state, we’re in trouble.”

Rep. Tom Phillips said he’s “very much opposed” to both of the proposals before the House. He said an educated workforce is a critical component to producing the job growth that Gov. Sam Brownback has focused on since he became governor.

“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,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the best hopes for preserving funding is to vote against the budget since rules make it harder to add funds to a proposed budget.

According to the “pay-go” rule — added by the House in 2011 and the Senate this year — a lawmaker can’t propose a spending increase during final budget debates without also proposing a budget cut. The funds can’t come from the ending balance.

“It makes it a very big challenge to identify where you’re going to cut someone else’s budget in order to offset the 4-percent reduction to Board of Regents institutions,” Phillips said.

Rep. Sydney Carlin said the amount already reduced in other areas will make it hard to propose cuts to help restore higher education funding. “Since we’ve emptied every pot, I don’t know where the money would come from to reinstate any of these,” she said.

Carlin, who is on the appropriations committee, said she didn’t support these measures as they came through committee. She indicated other representatives might not support them either.

“I think a lot of members of the House are upset about this,” she said. “It could have a negative effect on the budget bill we’ve been working on.”

Rep. Vern Swanson said he’s not in favor of cuts to any level of education. “I think it’s important for us to continue to educate our kids in the best way we can,” he said.

Swanson said he’s a firm believer that it isn’t the tax structure that will bring companies to Kansas. “They’ll look at our education system, they’ll look at our infrastructure, and they’ll look at our workforce,” he said. “Workforce being the number of people ready for employment as well as the people educated to do the jobs.”

Swanson said there are more things in the budget that legislators won’t like than would be favorable. He also said there hasn’t been enough time to figure out the budget despite discussions beginning Tuesday. Swanson said legislators received the budget documents Monday morning after a five-minute summation of the budget last week and no further informational meetings.

“I feel like we’re heading into a train kind of thing,” he said. “If it goes fast enough, it’ll pass and I don’t like that.”

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