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Joseph A. Aistrup: Shrewd move on university funding

  • Published Friday, April 26, 2013, at 6:09 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 26, 2013, at 6:09 p.m.

Gov. Sam Brownback has been visiting the Kansas Board of Regents universities. At each university, he reminds their leaders that he proposed level funding, while the Legislature wants to cut them by either 2 percent in the Senate or 4 percent in the House.

He then touts the benefits of his latest tax plan, a major component of which is to continue the state sales-tax rate at 6.3 percent instead of letting it drop in July to 5.7 percent. Then comes the hammer: The universities’ budgets can be spared if the Legislature passes his tax initiative.

Even though the Senate already has signed on to Brownback’s taxing plan, House Republicans, led by Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, have not.

Democrats and moderate Republicans still tend to win legislative seats in or near our university communities. Most of these Democrats, especially those in leadership positions such as House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, are committed to making Brownback live with the results of what they consider to be the reckless tax cuts enacted last session.

According to the recently released Consensus Revenue Estimating Group report, Brownback’s income-tax reductions will lower state general-fund revenues by more than $450 million next fiscal year. If the sales tax is also reduced to 5.7 percent in July, the state will lose another $270 million.

If the politics of the past foreshadow the future, one might suspect that Brownback is attempting to cobble together a new version of the moderate coalition in the House. Some speculate that a bare majority of the GOP House caucus supports Brownback’s plan. If a large portion of the Democratic caucus would change its tune and also support his plan, there would be just enough votes for it to pass.

This would be an interesting development, but House Democrats don’t appear to be willing partners. They have spent much of this session saying, “We told you so. Why didn’t you listen?” They will not be volunteering to cast the winning votes for any Brownback policy.

Left in the balance of this new era of politics in Kansas are the universities and Brownback. The universities have already announced that the impact of these proposed budget cuts would be grave, because these cuts come on top of years of flat or decreased funding from the state.

What’s in it for Brownback? If he loses this battle, or walks away with a compromise solution, he can legitimately claim that he fought the good fight, expending time and political capital for them.

He also has maneuvered Democrats into a tough spot, defending policies that hurt Kansas’ universities. This is a shrewd move by a politician who, even when he seemingly loses, wins.

Joseph A. Aistrup is a political science professor at Kansas State University.

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