TOPEKA — The House voted Tuesday to remove a cap on the salaries of state university employees but left in place a 4 percent across-the-board cut for higher education that some said could trigger further tuition increases.
The changes in higher education spending came as part of the $14 billion budget the House approved in a 71-51 preliminary vote.
Just a day before, Wichita State University President John Bardo had warned lawmakers that a cap on salaries could squelch ongoing negotiations with major companies to conduct research at WSU.
The state’s six regents universities would be able to tap their other grants and funds to increase salaries under an amendment offered by Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, and approved on a 89-28 vote.
Bardo’s warning was accompanied by concerns from other regents universities. Their concerns extended to the 4 percent cut.
But conservative Republican leaders pushed back, and Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said that universities have increased tuition during better budget times and that he suspects they would increase tuition anyway.
Democrats fumed at the cuts.
“We say we pride ourselves on higher education, yet we’re cutting funding for (higher education) so that our students will have more difficulty getting to college," Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, said.
The Senate is poised to debate its budget Wednesday afternoon. That proposal includes a 2 percent cut for the regents universities, as well as a $2.5 million cut to Wichita’s National Center for Aviation Training.
Lawmakers from both sides will likely meet to negotiate the difference between their tax and spending plans.
The state’s effort to reduce spending is largely spurred by big income tax cuts signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback has proposed extending a six-tenths of a cent sales tax to help stabilize the budget, but the House’s budget would let that expire, as scheduled, this summer.
The House helps deal with reduced state revenue by moving nearly $400 million in highway funds to the state’s general budget.