AP: Higher education budget tied to sales tax
TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas higher education officials are depending upon Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's political mojo working on fellow GOP conservatives on tax issues to preserve existing state funding for public universities and colleges.
Brownback began touring university and community college campuses last week in what his administration described as an effort to highlight the importance of higher education to the state and its economy. The tour came after university presidents warned the Kansas Board of Regents that budget cuts being considered by legislators could endanger crucial initiatives.
Legislators are taking their annual spring break and plan to reconvene May 8 to finish their business for the year. Tax issues are linked to the campaign to prevent cuts in higher education spending.
The governor and other Republicans want to position Kansas to phase out individual income taxes, but the state must stabilize its budget over the next few years. Brownback proposes to cancel a decrease in the sales tax scheduled by law for July, and if lawmakers don't agree to that plan, they'll find it difficult — and perhaps impossible — to follow his recommendation to preserve existing higher education spending.
The Republican-dominated Legislature appears headed toward cutting higher education, with some GOP lawmakers suggesting the regents and university officials haven't been held accountable enough to the public. But much depends on how legislators resolve tax issues.
"Until we pass the tax package, I have absolutely no idea what kind of funding we're going to get to work with," said Sen. Tom Arpke, a conservative Salina Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means subcommittee on education.
The Senate has embraced Brownback's sales tax measure and his proposals for a second round of individual income tax cuts. The House approved a plan to let the sales tax drop as planned, with far less aggressive income tax cuts. Legislators must resolve those differences to pass a tax bill after their spring break ends.
House and Senate negotiators also expect to continue talks on the final version of a roughly $14.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.
Under Brownback's proposals, total spending on higher education would remain about $2.5 billion for the next fiscal year. About $775 million in spending would be financed with state tax dollars — as opposed to tuition dollars or federal funds — four-tenths of 1 percent more than the amount in the current budget.
In January, Regents Chairman Tim Emert, a former Senate majority leader from Independence, praised the governor for "recognizing the importance of higher education." A political alliance was forged.
Regent Mildred Edwards, of Wichita, said last week after Brownback's visit to Washburn University in Topeka, "The Kansas Board of Regents fully supports the governor's budget for higher education. It's necessary to continue to grow Kansas and build our work force."
The Senate approved a 2 percent cut in the state's share of the funding, trimming about $15 million from the governor's proposals for the next fiscal year.
The House went significantly deeper. It started with a 4 percent cut in universities, community colleges' and technical colleges funding, trimming about $29 million. But it also capped the amount of money for state government salaries and longevity bonuses at existing levels — and the regents estimate the policies would cost them another $19 million.
House GOP leaders contend they're trying to keep the tax burden on Kansas families, particularly middle-class ones, low and they chided the regents over the annual tuition increases they've approved to make up for tight state funding.
"Just because an institution provides a valuable service to our state does not mean they should avoid being accountable for taxpayer dollars," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said in a statement last week.
Democratic legislators are frustrated because they think the debate over higher education spending shifts attention away from the state's self-inflicted budget problems. Supporters expect last year's tax cuts to stimulate the economy, but the reductions have — as Brownback concedes — left the state needing to backfill its budget to avoid significant cuts to core programs.
"The drumbeat to fund higher education at the governor's recommended level, that's being played out just to put pressure on legislators to not sunset the sales tax," said Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The sales tax is set to drop to 5.7 percent in July, under a 2010 budget-balancing law that boosted the tax before Brownback took office. Keeping the rate at 6.3 percent would generate $258 million during the next fiscal year.
"The whole budget has to fit together," Brownback said last week. "Your receipts and your expenditures have to balance."
House GOP leaders continue to insist that a proposal to cancel the sales tax decrease can't pass their chamber. Arpke, who supported Brownback's plan on the sales tax, predicts a compromise.
But higher education officials have tied themselves to Brownback and his political skills.
Political Writer John Hanna has covered Kansas government and politics since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/apjdhanna