(HAYS) — A mental health center in Liberal is just one place in western Kansas feeling an extreme shortage of social workers, said Tim Davis, chair of the Department of Social Work at Fort Hays State University.

"I was talking to the executive director of the mental health center there, and the average time to fill a therapist's position is a year and a half," Davis said.

FHSU wants to ease the shortage in western Kansas by expanding its social work program, but ramping up might take longer than planned.

Some money for the expansion would have come from a small slice of a bigger funding request by the Board of Regents, but it was shot down in February by state lawmakers. The Regents were asking lawmakers to increase state funding to higher education by $50 million.

Had it been approved, Fort Hays would have gotten about $2.5 million, said Michael Barnett, vice president of administration and finance at FHSU.

Freshman legislator Rep. Barb Wasinger, a Republican who represents the 111th District, which includes Fort Hays, was one of the legislators who early on voted against the funding as a member of the House Higher Education Budget Committee.

The committee instead passed a package offering only $19.4 million in added money. Fort Hays will get a small slice if that's approved by the Legislature.

Wasinger in committee voted against the funding, but said in an email response to The Hays Daily News that "I am a strong supporter of Fort Hays State University."

"All departments have asked for increased spending and budgets while it is clear revenues will not keep pace," Wasinger explained in her email. "Tough decisions like these have been made and unfortunately, not everything can be funded."

FHSU's Barnett acknowledged he hadn't been optimistic about getting the $50 million, due to the state's ongoing budget crunch.

"You sometimes have to ask, because the worst they can say is 'no,'" he said. "There's no harm in asking."

The House and Senate are now negotiating the final increase, whether it will be $19.4 million or less.

The lawmakers are also poised to restore some of the $30 million in funding cut in 2017 by Gov. Sam Brownback.

In 2019, Fort Hays got $637,000 restored, said FHSU's Barnett. The restored amount for 2020 is still being debated, but FHSU is proposing $379,000.

"So there are things that we forego in a given year as a result of a reduction in the state general fund," said Barnett. With more money, he said, the university can provide better services and take better care of facilities.

Rep. Ken Rahjes, Republican representing the 110th District, which includes part of Ellis County, chairs the House Higher Education Budget Committee.

While Wasinger voted against the funding increase, others on the committee passed it, recommending the Regents get Gov. Laura Kelly's recommended $8.9 million increase, plus another $10.5 million on top of that.

"The biggest goal was to make the institutions whole from the 2017 cuts," Rahjes said. "We have a lot of needs and we're trying to make wise decisions. There's a limited pool of money."

As chair of the committee, Rahjes defended the $19.4 million in increased Regents' funding to the House Appropriations Committee. The House is now negotiating with the Senate on a final figure to include in the state budget.

"I have fought hard and made my case that higher education is something that should be invested in," Rahjes said. "I voted for it in the full House Appropriations committee; I defended our committee's position and to put it in the overall budget."

Wasinger said Fort Hays deserves its funding.

"If I was the sole decision maker of higher education funding, I would fund FHSU at a higher rate compared to other universities due to their prudent use of state tax dollars, wise business decisions and the fact that it has the lowest tuition rate in the state," Wasinger said in her email to The Hays Daily News. "The committee as a whole decided to treat all universities as one group and that couldn't be done."

Fort Hays withstood Brownback's cuts thanks to growing credit-hour production from enrollment growth, Barnett said.

"That growth we had took care of the cut from the state," he said. FHSU's share of the 2020 increase could range from $225,000 to $450,000. The 2020 fiscal year for Fort Hays begins July 1.

Whatever the final amount, the money will help expand the Social Work program, Barnett said.

Social workers in Kansas work everywhere from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, addiction rehab centers and the court system, said Davis.

"They are pretty much wherever you find people helping people," he said.

Only about 11 percent of the state's social workers live in the western part of the state. Statewide, there are 1,750 licensed social workers who have the four-year bachelor's of social work degree. Only 194 of those are in western Kansas, Davis said. Only 72 in western Kansas are licensed addiction counselors.

The numbers are even worse when looking at the number of social workers with a master's degree, a requirement for clinical social workers.

"They are the largest provider of mental health services in the nation," Davis said. Only 4 percent of the state's clinical social workers are in western Kansas, with an extreme shortage in the southwestern part of the state.

The Fort Hays Bachelor of Social Work program is a four-year degree that started in 1993. There are 140 students enrolled as majors this year.

Besides classes on the FHSU campus, Fort Hays offers the degree through partnerships with community colleges in Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal.

The Ford County program will graduate 13 social workers in May.

"That will double the number of social workers there," Davis said. "They attend classes in their community, without ever having to leave, so they are more likely then to stay and serve the area."

Fort Hays is launching new social work programs in Colby, Norton and Concordia. About $95,000 in funding for the expansion comes from The Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan.

FHSU hopes to launch in Fall 2020 a Master's in Social Work with a specialization in clinical social work, also at the community partnership sites. Currently in Kansas the MSW is offered only at the University of Kansas, Wichita State University and Washburn University, Davis said.

"Ours will be cheaper than the other options in the state," he said. Depending on whether a student qualifies for the one-year or the two-year MSW, the cost will range from $10,900 to $18,400 at Fort Hays, compared to $18,300 to $31,200 at KU, Davis said.

More money from the state would help fund scholarships, Davis said.

"It would help us attract people to the program," Davis said. "With the MSW there aren't grant opportunities like there are for the BSW.... Pulling $11,000 out of the air is difficult. But half that could make it do-able for a person."