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Wichita State president tells lawmakers cuts could hurt research effort, professor recruitment

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Monday, March 18, 2013, at 4:10 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2013, at 6:40 a.m.

— Wichita could lose hundreds of highly sought-after engineering and IT jobs if state lawmakers approve salary caps and higher education budget cuts, Wichita State University President John Bardo said Monday.

That’s because WSU is currently negotiating several deals that hinge on its ability to pay competitive salaries for research and engineer positions, Bardo said.

Bardo’s comments, along with those of officials from several other colleges, came as House lawmakers prepare to debate and vote on a budget Tuesday.

Lawmakers are struggling to cut spending enough to accommodate a new round of income-tax reductions and to prevent future budget woes triggered by tax cuts approved last year.

The vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee said the budget would be tweaked to to prevent such painful consequences, but he offered no specifics.

Bardo said he usually wouldn’t publically discuss ongoing negotiations, but he said the Legislature’s move toward capping university salaries and cutting funding for regents universities has forced him to share the outline of the negotiations.

One involves a major, unnamed Wichita company that is considering moving all of its research to WSU. Bardo said he would have to withdraw from negotiations if the state caps university salaries, and North Carolina could win the company over.

Another deal involves a global aviation company that is considering moving all of its research outfits around the globe to Wichita. That, Bardo said, would add 200 to 300 new jobs in Wichita.

A third negotiation involves a federal agency looking to develop a second version of Wichita’s National Institute for Aviation Research.

Finally, Bardo said he’d have to call back a WSU official who is in India talking with a company looking to locate a new IT research facility to either California, Utah or Kansas.

“If this salary cap stands, I will not be able to continue in good faith, will have to withdraw from that negotiation and leave on the table a major research center that could in fact… impact hundreds of jobs in Wichita,” Bardo told the House Education Budget Committee.

Steven Warren, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at the University of Kansas, said KU research has helped spur 24 startup companies and 72 active license agreements for commercial use of new inventions and has drawn 11 companies to Kansas to collaborate over the past three years.

Cutting state spending sends a bad signal that the state doesn’t see higher education as a form of economic development, and it could make it easier for other states to recruit people away from Kansas universities, he said.

The House Appropriations Committee agreed last week to a budget that freezes salaries at universities at 2013 levels and imposes a 4 percent funding cut.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, a Republican from Wichita who is vice chairman of the committee, said lawmakers will find ways to tweak the budget to avoid such painful consequences.

“We knew that this was going to have to take a little bit more of an adjustment,” he said. “But you also have to look at the number of taxpayers in the state of Kansas, the number of jobs in the state of Kansas and where that money is going to come from.”

Suellentrop said he would like to see more evidence that the state’s investment in higher education is paying off.

He said he was aware of WSU’s pending deals and that he wants the deals to work out.

“We can clearly accommodate that, we’ll sit down and find ways we can partner on that,” he said.

Suellentrop said Gov. Sam Brownback is pushing to advance higher education and research while also balancing the budget, maintaining core services and keeping some money in the state’s savings account.

“It’s a trick to balance all of that,” he said.

Making things trickier, the House has rules that require any increases to the budget, such as those resulting from removing the salary cap and 4 percent higher education cuts, to be offset by a corresponding budget reduction.

It’s unclear what might be cut in order to prevent problems at the universities.

The state’s final budget will likely emerge from negotiations between the House and Senate after each chamber has approved its spending plan. Then Brownback will have the authority to veto any particular part he doesn’t like.

Reach Brent Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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