TOPEKA — The morning after raising tuition at all the state’s universities, the Board of Regents began mapping strategy to try to turn up political heat on the Legislature to restore some of the state funding cut in this year’s session.
But that might not be easy. The influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee suggested they can “give it their best shot.”
On the second day of the regents’ two-day meeting in Topeka, Mary Jane Stankiewicz, director of government relations, told them that they have a good case but need to get more people involved in taking it to the Legislature.
“The message, we think, is still sound,” Stankiewicz said. “Our higher ed is assisting people in getting a job, keeping a job and getting higher wages throughout their lifetime.”
She said the issue for the regents is: “How do we expand our messengers? How do we use more and implement more grass-roots efforts?”
Regent Kenny Wilk of Lansing said he thinks the board needs to focus on drumming up more public and legislative support for the regents’ goal of having 60 percent of adult Kansans holding some kind of post-secondary certification – college degree or technical specialty – by the year 2020.
Right now, that number is about 50 percent, which Wilk said is not good enough to keep the state competitive in a world of rapid technological change.
“I happen to believe that objective is one of the most important things that we’re going to do for our state,” said Wilk, a former Republican lawmaker appointed to the regents by Gov. Sam Brownback.
“We are not managing a status quo operation here,” Wilk said. “If we are, we need to change that goal.”
Stankiewicz said her department is looking to fill a vacancy for a communications specialist to carry the effort forward into next year’s legislative session
“We will have things to discuss with the Legislature or to make sure that we get our points out as you all did yesterday with the tuition,” Stankiewicz said.
On Wednesday, as they took a series of votes to raise tuition between 3.4 percent and 8 percent at universities across the state, regents lashed the Legislature for forcing their hand with a budget bill that reduces state funding for universities by about $33 million a year in the 2014 and 2015 budget years.
Regents suggested the entire higher-ed community – students, parents and faculty – needed to unify and tell lawmakers to restore the state funding.
As the regents discussed their strategy Thursday, lawmakers were across the street at the Capitol for “Sine Die,” the largely ceremonial session that closes the legislative year.
Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said the cut to state university funding is minor and that the regents raise tuition whether state funding gets cut or not.
As the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the House’s lead budget negotiator, Rhoades is a key gatekeeper over state support for higher education.
Of their upcoming political effort to pressure the Legislature, Rhoades said: “They can do that. They can give it their best shot.”
He said the cuts by the Legislature represent only seven tenths of a percent of the overall funding for universities.
“That blows my mind that we’re having a conversation about point-seven percent, and everybody’s complaining about that but nobody’s looking at the universities,” he said. “Overall, all university systems, from 2002 to 2012, (had a) 137 percent rate raising tuition. Now that’s a problem.”
Rhoades said the real problem is spending escalation at the universities.
“If you look at the state support, it’s pretty much stayed at the same level and the inflation’s only gone up about 25 percent in the same time period,” e said. “So the Board of Regents are really culpable here in my impression for allowing the (tuition) increases to come in. What’s their reason for allowing it?”
Regents say that flat funding has meant state support has become an increasingly smaller piece of the funding of higher education.
On Thursday, regent Robba Moran of Hays said state support now represents only 22 percent of the cost of providing higher education, down from 75 percent in the 1970s and 1980s.
Wichita State University clocked in with the highest percentage increase in tuition, 8 percent. Of that, 3.5 percent is to offset the state cuts and 4.5 percent is for a raise pool to give employees merit increases.
WSU President John Bardo said it simply costs more to hire and equip employees than it did years ago.
He said when he started out as a young professor, about all he needed to do his job was a classroom, a chalkboard and a set-aside of time on the university mainframe computer to run punch-card research programs.
Now, professors need tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and software to do high-level research, along with expensive audio and visual presentation equipment for teaching, he said.
There’s also more competition for the best professors.
“Our tuition has not really kept pace with the costs and what we’re trying to do is to hold onto the good people we have and to deal with a very changing market where in critical fields, we’re seeing costs escalate,” Bardo said.
Rhoades said he doesn’t think some of the costs can be justified.
“Do we also need to be paying professors $200,000 and $300,000 when the governor makes $100,000?” he said. “The first three pages of all top employees (salaries) are higher ed.
“Their all-funds expenditure has gone like doubled, even during the recession. So it doesn’t wash with me. I’m not buying it.”
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he wants to see the cuts restored, plus “enhancements in targeted areas.”
But he said Brownback will have to spend some political capital for that to happen.
Before this year’s legislative session, the governor barnstormed the state’s college campuses and called on the Legislature to not cut funding for higher education.
“You know, he talked a good game, but in the end, he was really unwilling to go to bat for the universities,” Davis said. “It’s going to be incumbent on him to really take the lead and demonstrate to the Legislature that he’s willing to do more than just talk about how we ought to support the regents.”