AP: Brownback: Higher ed deserves to avoid cuts
TOPEKA (AP) — Gov. Sam Brownback said Friday his administration has pushed Kansas' higher education system to take on additional work and that legislators should protect funding for state universities and colleges because they've "stepped up aggressively" to meet rising expectations.
The Republican governor wrapped up a week of touring university, community college and technical college campuses with a visit to Washburn University in Topeka. The tour is designed to highlight the importance of the higher education system to the state's economy and to promote budget proposals from Brownback to hold spending on higher education at current levels for the fiscal year beginning in July.
Brownback plans additional campus visits May 6 and 7, with the GOP-dominated Legislature scheduled to reconvene May 8 after a spring break to finish the year's business. Both the House and Senate have approved cuts in state funding for higher education but must resolve their differences.
Even as the governor touted his budget proposals, he said he supports a legislative study of university operations to examine House Republican leaders' questions about whether the campuses have stockpiled funds. Brownback said he's researching the issue, though state Board of Regents officials said most of the funds identified by GOP leaders are set aside for special purposes.
Brownback is asking legislators to avoid higher education cuts while pushing to cancel a decrease in the sales tax scheduled by law for July. He and many Republicans want to pursue future income tax cuts, and keeping the sales tax at its current rate would stabilize the budget.
"I am asking the higher education institutions in the state of Kansas to do more," Brownback said during a news conference. "It does take resources to do these sort of things."
Brownback noted that the state is pushing its universities to increase the number of engineers they produce. The University of Kansas Medical Center also has expanded its physician training program in Wichita and added a new program in Salina. Also, medical center officials have warned that funding cuts could jeopardize the National Cancer Institute designation for the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, Kan., when it comes up for renewal in 2016 and 2017.
"What we need in higher education is stable funding," said Washburn President Jerry Farley, whose university receives $11 million a year from the state. "We're not able to react to peaks and valleys very well."
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said warnings from higher education officials that important programs are in danger are "blustering and posturing." He said lawmakers will protect important initiatives but want to find efficiencies and trim government.
"Higher Education seems to continue to create ways to spend money, and spend more on existing programs," Rhoades said in an emailed statement. "At some point someone needs to ask, 'How much is enough?"'
Brownback proposed state funding for higher education of $775 million for the fiscal year beginning in July, an increase of 0.4 percent.
The Senate approved a 2 percent cut, trimming about $15 million. The House has passed a 4 percent reduction and is capping overall state spending on salaries and wages, though it's not prohibiting raises on regents' campuses.
House GOP leaders have noted that when the state's previous fiscal year ended in June 2012, state universities had nearly $422 million on hand, according to legislative researchers. Eight years earlier, the figure was $117 million.
Rhoades said any time legislators see such a trend, "We're going to ask why."
But Board of Regents officials said Friday that most of the funds have been set aside for specific programs, research or projects, and reserves of tuition revenues are meant to cover university operations during the summer. Also, they said, a change in the state's accounting computer system two years ago stopped tying dollars to the coming obligations they are to cover, because individual institutions' systems already were doing it.
Still, Board of Regents spokeswoman Mary Jane Stankiewicz said the board supports a legislative study of university budgeting, and Brownback said, "I want to look into it more."