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The politics of Regents’ funding

Joseph A. Aistrup

By A Contributor

Gov. Sam Brownback has plans to visit all the Kansas Board of Regents universities. At every university, he reminds them that he proposed level funding, while the Kansas Legislature wants to cut them by either 2 percent in the Kansas Senate or 4 percent in the Kansas House. He then touts the benefits of his tax plans, a major component of which is to continue the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent instead of letting it drop in July to 5.7 percent.

Then comes the hammer; the universities’ budgets can be spared if the Legislature passes his tax initiatives. Even though the Senate has already signed on to Brown-back’s taxing plans, House Republicans, led by Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stillwell Republican, have not.

Outside of Wyandotte County, Democrats and/or moderate Republicans still tend to win legislative seats in or near our university communities. Most of these Democrats, especially those in leadership positions like House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, are commit-ted to making Brownback live with the results of what they consider to be the reckless tax cuts enacted last session.  

According to the Consensus Estimating Group’s report, released last week, Brownback’s income tax reductions will lower state general fund revenues by more than $450 million for FY 2014. If the sales tax is also reduced to 5.7 percent in July, the state will lose another $270 million.

If the politics of the past foreshadow the future, one might suspect that Brownback is attempting to cobble together a new version of the moderate coalition in the House. Some speculate that a bare majority of the GOP House caucus supports Brownback’s plan. If a large portion of the Democratic caucus would change its tune and also support his plan, there would be just enough votes for it to pass.

This would be an interesting development, but current poli-tics makes this scenario very unlikely. Conservative Repub-licans in the House have a sour taste in their mouths from the moderate coalitions of yester-year. They’d prefer to provide all the votes necessary to pass any major policy or budget bill without Democrats.  

House Democrats don’t appear to be willing partners either. They have spent much of this session saying, “I told you so! Why didn’t you listen?” They are resigned to allow Brownback and the Republicans to live with the ramifications of the tax cuts enacted last year. House Democrats will not be volun-teering to cast the winning votes for any Brownback policy.

Left in the balance of this new era of politics in Kansas are the universities and Brownback. The universities have already announced that the impact of these proposed budget cuts would be grave, because these cuts come on top of years of flat or decreased funding from the state.  

What’s in it for Brownback? Since the beginning of his administration, his budgets have provided level funding for the Board of Regents system, despite cuts in other areas.  If he loses this battle or walks away with a compromise solution, he can legitimately claim that he fought the good fight, expending time and polit-ical capital for higher education.

But, he can also point his finger back at Democrats, asking them where were they when the tough vote came to keep the sales tax rate at its current level to protect universities’ budgets?

Even though Democrats will protest loudly, claiming that it was Brownback’s income tax cuts that created this budget mess in the first place, Brownback has maneuvered them into a tough spot — defending policies that hurt Kansas’ universities. This is a shrewd move by a politician who even when he seemingly loses, wins.   

Joseph A. Aistrup is a political science professor at Kansas State University.

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