Political leverage in NBAF woes

By Bryan Richardson

TOPEKA – Gov. Sam Brownback told members of the Board of Regents Thursday that the state is using the federal government’s financial troubles as leverage in discussions regarding the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).

The biosafety level 4 facility slated to come to Manhattan would replace Plum Island Animal Disease Center as the nation’s lead facility for large animal disease research. But construction of the project has stalled because the increasing cost and lack of funding caused President Barack Obama to call for a reconsideration of the project.

At the Regents’ monthly meeting, Brownback said the financial struggle is really a positive for the state during the “heavy negotiations.” “The fed is in a negotiating mood because they’re out of money,” he said. “So we ought to work with that.”

If done properly, Brownback said the negotiations could allow Kansas to derive more intellectual property from the facility, which leads to more job creation for the state. He said many federal labs across the country don’t have a lot of activity around them, something he doesn’t want to happen to Kansas.

“A good portion of growth in the future is going to have an intellectual piece associated with it,” he said. “The place that can secure the most intellectual property will have a leg up on other places.”

The state has committed to provide $200 million for the estimated $1.14 billion project. Brownback said the state money is there because NBAF is a priority for Kansas.

Brownback addressed other topics, including the nature of higher education funding.

He said the legislature doesn’t like paying for broad based funding but will pay for initiatives, particularly if the results are shown to be positive. Last year, the initiatives funded by the state included $5 million for K-State veterinary medicine to increase the number of faculty and research staff support staff, research equipment and graduate student enhancement.

Brownback touted a technical education initiative. Beginning this school year, Kansas high school students can qualify for free college tuition in approved technical courses offered at technical and community colleges. The initiative includes $8.75 million for student tuition in career technical programs.

Brownback said starting with technical education doesn’t mean that’s where a person has to stop. “Then, you work your way through college,” he said. “Then you work your way up to being CEO of the company, and you started off as the IT guy.”

Brownback said he wants to encourage entrepreneurship. He said Kansas doesn’t have enough startup companies, and the Regents institutions should be a factor in stimulating this. “We should see it at your institutions more than anywhere,” he said.

Brownback said the state is also making investments to become an “animal agriculture powerhouse” and a renewable state. He said the state has $3 billion in new wind investments, which is the largest investment in the nation by far.

Brownback said the Regents institutions have to be a part of the state’s success. “We have these extraordinary opportunities to build a renewable state, but it’s going to take a lot of technical capacity and knowledge that the Regents institutions can provide,” he said.

K-State president Kirk Schulz said the overall message of higher education being a solution is a positive. He said it’s very clear from Brownback’s comments that universities will receive additional funding for initiatives rather than across the board increases.

“If that’s what the governor would like to see, it’s up to us to make sure that we’re providing those for him and that they’re creative ideas to move Kansas forward,” Schulz said.

Brownback also mentioned the success of K-State football and interview requests he has received recently because of it, including the Wall Street Journal sports section. The Wildcats are No. 1 in the BCS rankings, giving them the inside track to the national championship game if the team wins the last two conference games.

Regent Dan Lykins said the K-State football team’s success brings attention to the entire state. “Any way we can use good notoriety to promote our state, we need to continue to do so,” he said.

Schulz said members of the K-State marketing and communication department are working on a plan for more promotion of the university’s academics, specifically in December, as the team’s exposure grows.

“We have a national audience to really demonstrate (the) outstanding academic institution that we are,” he said.

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