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Analyst: Brownback can’t undo cuts to universities

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, June 7, 2013, at 8:57 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at 12:54 p.m.

Gov. Sam Brownback won’t be able to use his line-item veto power to undo about $66 million in cuts to state universities that are included in the budget that was passed by the Legislature last week, a top state analyst said Friday.

In essence, Brownback’s only choice is to let the cuts go forward as written in the budget or veto the entire line item for state operating funds for the universities, said J.G. Scott, chief fiscal analyst in the Department of Legislative Research.

“The way that it was structured in the appropriation bill, the governor could not get in and veto that reduction specifically,” Scott said. “He would have to veto all state general fund expenditures for that account to get to the reduction that was made.”

If he did that, the universities “wouldn’t get a good portion of their operating budget,” Scott said.

That came as a surprise to some state senators, who voted for the budget bill under the assumption that Brownback could restore at least some of the cut by vetoing a cap on salaries at the universities.

“In the back of my mind, I thought the salaries could be restored by the governor,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, a close ally of the governor.

The budget bill passed in the waning hours of a Saturday-into-Sunday marathon session a week ago that closed out legislative business for the year.

Senators weren’t happy about the university cuts that the House demanded, but many voted yes with the belief that Brownback would be able to undo about $10.3 million of the $33 million cuts for 2014.

Passing the budget bill in the Senate was key to getting a tax plan through the House so the session could end, Wagle said.

“A lot of members of my caucus were holding their nose,” Wagle said.

On Friday, Brownback told the Associated Press that he and his staff are reviewing the budget to determine what he can do with his veto pen.

“We’re going to be looking at what … options are (available),” Brownback said. “That’s what we’re analyzing, what’s available for line-item vetoes and what impact that has, if there is a line-item veto.”

In a statewide tour of college campuses earlier this year, Brownback had promised to try to keep funding at current levels.

Overall, the Legislature approved budget cuts of $33 million for 2014 and $32.8 million for 2015 from the governor’s requested funding for regents universities. Two of the big cuts for 2014 were a 1.5 percent reduction in general fund support worth $9.4 million and the $10.3 million reduction in the governor’s recommendation for salaries.

As things stand now, there’s not a hard freeze on hiring and pay increases, so university administrators retain the authority to give raises to their employees, many of whom haven’t had a raise in five years.

But the money to pay for raises isn’t in the budget, so they’d have to shift funds from another state-funded expenditure line or use money from another source, such as tuition charged directly to students, Scott said.

This week, all of the universities asked the Board of Regents to approve tuition increases.

The biggest increase request was from Wichita State University, which is seeking an 8.1 percent bump in tuition. WSU President John Bardo said he wants to use part of that to fund a 4 percent raise pool, which would be used to give employees merit-based salary increases.

Bardo said he’s concerned about losing his best professors, a worry Wagle said she and other Senate Republicans share.

“The concern in my caucus is you want to attract the best and brightest,” Wagle said.

House minority leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he saw it coming. He warned the House Democratic caucus Saturday night that it would be impossible for the governor to restore university money by vetoing the salary cap.

“What I’ve heard from the grapevine is he (Brownback) is going to do that,” Davis said Friday. “But it doesn’t have any effect.”

With only 33 of 125 members in the House and eight out of 40 in the Senate, the Democrats weren’t able to affect the outcome.

“I think the Republicans are stuck with a $66 million cut over the next two years, no matter what happens with a veto,” Davis said.

Scott said the only way he could see to change the cuts would be another appropriation bill. That’s highly unlikely to happen this year.

The only time lawmakers are scheduled to be back at the Capitol this year is June 20 for sine die, a ceremonial event marking the official end of the annual legislative session.

While lawmakers could theoretically take substantive action in a sine die session, it almost never happens because of the difficulty of trying to move legislation through both houses on a single day that many lawmakers skip. Each absent lawmaker essentially counts as a “no” vote on legislation.

The 2014 fiscal year starts next month, so there is likely no way to head off the cuts before they occur.

However, Wagle said she expects that the governor and Senate will attempt to restore some university funding for the 2015 budget year when the Legislature returns to regular session in January.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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