TOPEKA — The relentless push to shrink government and cut taxes could trigger tuition hikes and mean less state money for a program that provides aviation companies with work-ready employees.
Competing versions of budget cuts from the House and Senate both include reductions in state aid for universities, a move that could add to ever-increasing tuition rates.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita, essentially a tech college built primarily by Sedgwick County to produce work-ready employees for aircraft manufacturers, is poised to lose $2 million of the $5 million it has become accustomed to receiving from the state.
Those cuts also would pluck $2 million each in funding from cancer research at the University of Kansas and animal health research at Kansas State University.
Legislators also considered a proposal to cut $2 million from the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University, but decided against the cuts.
It’s too early to know whether lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback will ultimately reduce funding for higher education; a few more weeks of grueling debates will likely lead to big changes in budget proposals. Brownback included a full $5 million for each of the four programs in his proposed budget, and he has said higher education is key to the state. During his State of the State speech in January, he said that “This glide path to zero (income tax) will not cut funding for schools, higher education or essential safety net programs.”
But the prospect of less state aid has college administrators worried and politicians looking for solutions.
“Those projects are very important to the three major universities,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said. “Our aircraft manufacturers are so delighted about the new facility. That facility is creating jobs in Wichita. So this is not the end game. We have it in the bill to talk about it to determine if that investment is what’s best for Kansans.”
Jim Walters, a senior vice president of human resources at Cessna and chairman of the Sedgwick County Technical Education and Training Authority, said NCAT and the closely tied National Institute for Aviation Research at WSU are essential to the aviation industry, and they represent a model that many parts of the country envy.
Walters acknowledged the struggles for aviation caused by the recession and the industry’s natural cyclical nature. But he said research and development is important to help the industry emerge from downturns and that the aging workforce at Wichita area companies means there are plenty of openings for trained workers.
“It’s a key element to workforce development and economic development in south-central Kansas,” he said. “I’m hoping they recognize the importance to the Kansas economy.”
The move to cut NCAT spending followed days of discussions by senators, including questions about the state’s return on investment by Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood.
Melcher said that when the state gives $15 million in taxpayer money to the three universities for research programs, it should be provided with better proof that the programs are creating jobs and should get a share of the profits created when research at the universities is sold for big returns.
“Taxpayers have extended their wallets to fund these things, and they should expect something to come back into the state’s fund as a result of that,” he said.
Melcher acknowledged job creation can boost state tax revenues, but he said the state should also benefit from the research it is funding.
Melcher initially sought to cut funding for all the programs, including NIAR. But he said Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, stressed the importance of NIAR and helped bring in advocates who persuaded the committee to fund the project.
But Melcher and Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said they didn’t hear the same validation of NCAT or the animal health program at Kansas State or cancer research at KU.
‘Three unique resources’
Aviation companies and many local politicians see NCAT and NIAR as key to keeping Wichita competitive in an increasingly globalized industry.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Brownback’s tax cuts are forcing the state to cut essential programs by creating a self-inflicted budget problem.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said that the state’s investment in university research and training programs is precisely how economic development dollars should be spent.
“We have three unique resources and we have decided to make strategic investments in those resources that will attract economic development, more dollars for those institutions and job opportunities,” Davis said. “They have succeeded to date.”
But he said many Republicans favor tax cuts, hoping the cuts will stimulate the economy and prompt businesses to create jobs.
“The other theory,” he said, “is that everybody gets a little bit more money and we hope that something is going to happen as a result of it. It’s not proven to work.”
Affecting tuition rates
In addition to cuts to research programs, the Legislature is considering overall cuts to higher education.
Democrats contend that the 4 percent university funding cuts proposed by the House budget panel and the 2 percent cuts backed by the Senate panel are likely to drive up tuition rates because the cuts follow years of funding reductions.
State money used to make up more of WSU’s budget, but that has changed. It has fallen from 37 percent in 2005 to about 24 percent in 2013.
A 4 percent cut, as proposed by the House, equates to a $2.6 million hit for WSU.
“President (John) Bardo said he plans to talk with various legislators about the budget on Monday, and then meet with his (university) team to discuss contingency plans,” said WSU spokesman Joe Kleinsasser. “He said he still believes the governor’s plan is the right plan for Kansas.”
For Kansas State, a 4 percent reduction would translate to a $6.7 million cut.
Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs at KU, said a 4 percent cut equates to more than $5 million at its Lawrence campus and $4 million at the medical center in Kansas City, Kan., resulting in the lowest funding since at least 2006.
Adjusted for inflation, that means per-student support from the state shrank 40 percent since 1999, he said.
“I think the conversation we’re now having in this state is this: Is higher education in Kansas a public good or an individual good?” he said.
If it is an individual good, then all the good that a university does goes to the individual student, he said.
But if it is a public good, then universities, by producing educated and trained people, are drivers of economic development, scientific discovery and attracting talent and business to the state, he said.
“If you look at past reductions, we at KU have become much more efficient,” Caboni said. “But the question is, at what point do reductions begin to affect the core mission of higher education?”
House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said that it’s unclear how tax cut plans will come out and that he has to find reductions to deal with the potential impact.
“Frankly, we’re going to need to find ways to make reductions,” he said.
Rhoades said there’s more than $2 billion in the state budget for higher education.
“I’m a little bit bothered by this,” he said. “The numbers are staggering and then we get down in the weeds on $15 million or $5 million and everyone goes crazy. I just think it’s a little out of balance.”
There are plenty of places to cut state government without causing real problems, he said, and some groups are better than others at justifying their share of state money.
“It’s the nature of man to protect your turf,” he said.