Brownback pushes for higher-education funds

04/24/2013 5:44 AM

04/24/2013 5:45 AM

Introducing Republican Gov. Sam Brownback – the moderate?

Brownback – the conservative leader of an increasingly conservative Republican Party in Kansas – is campaigning across the state to drum up support for funding higher education with a sales tax extension.

The latest battle with the Legislature – he has lost precious few – pits him awkwardly against traditionally conservative allies.

They want to end part of the sales tax and cut higher education to pay for tax cuts that left a roughly $700 million hole in the budget for next year.

In some ways, he can’t lose.

If the state’s colleges and university are spared, Brownback’s efforts would be a key reason why. And the governor would stand to get credit.

“If he loses, he’d say, ‘The Legislature didn’t agree with me, but I fought for higher education,’ ” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.

“This is the sort of thing,” Beatty said, “that can drive Brownback’s opponents crazy.”

While critics can argue the governor’s tax cuts set the stage for paring back higher education and other state services, the detailed explanation of how it unfolded may be a hard case to make in the heat of an election.

“It would be much easier to say, ‘I went to the campuses and urged that we protect higher education,’ ” Beatty said.

Brownback would not say Tuesday whether he would veto cuts in higher education.

His tour started Monday at Wichita State and continued Tuesday with a stop at the University of Kansas. It continues the rest of the week, including visits on Thursday to the University of Kansas Medical Center and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Brownback met privately with KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and other school officials. Afterward, he emphasized the importance of higher education to Kansas.

“A healthy, robust KU,” the governor said, “is very important to recruit companies and people from all over the world.”

The Legislature has thrust Brownback into a situation where he is coaxing lawmakers into extending a six-tenths of a cent sales tax increase approved in 2010 to fund one of the cornerstones of his gubernatorial campaign – higher education.

“He is sending a clear signal to the Legislature that he is going to defend his higher-education budget,” said Fred Logan, a Prairie Village lawyer whom Brownback appointed to the Board of Regents.

Trouble with House

However, Brownback is having trouble getting House members to support the tax extension. Many conservatives either voted against it in 2010 or campaigned against the sales tax to get elected. It puts the governor in an unfamiliar political position.

“In some ways it makes him look (like) a slightly more moderating force in the politics of the state,” said Wichita State University political scientist Ed Flentje. “I don’t know that’s where he wants to be.”

Democrats think that’s clearly by design.

“They are trying to make him look more moderate,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “(But) people know that the Republicans have total control of government and he’s in charge.”

Plus, the Legislature is stacked with lawmakers elected with Brownback support and from a purge of moderate Republicans.

“No governor,” Davis said, “has probably ever had a friendlier Legislature.”

Still, Brownback’s position on higher-education spending and the sales tax puts him at odds with conservative leaders in the House.

They’re trying to find ways to cut spending while letting the sales tax lapse and still gradually cutting income taxes with growing revenues in the future.

Brownback rejected suggestions that signing new tax cuts last year spurred the higher-education funding fight.

“We can have solid, good higher education in the state of Kansas and a stable tax structure,” he said. “This is way doable.”

Rep. Marc Rhoades, the House appropriations committee chairman, has pushed for the budget cuts while criticizing the state’s colleges and universities for raising tuition at a faster pace than inflation.

“The average graduate leaves with $22,000 in debt and a diploma which may or may not translate into a real-world job,” Rhoades, R-Newton, said in a statement after the governor announced his tour last week. “This system would benefit from a discussion of return on investment.”

Brownback said Tuesday the dispute in the Legislature reflects new lawmakers who he says are not yet familiar with higher-education finances.

Different plans

The House plan is very different from the plan in the Senate, which wants to keep the sales tax but cut higher education to a lesser extent than the House. The Senate has largely backed Brownback’s plan to more aggressively cut income taxes over the next several years.

The Senate proposed a 2 percent across-the-board cut to higher education, while the House agreed to a 4 percent cut.

The proposals mean colleges and universities would lose somewhere between $15 million and $30 million, not counting other projects that may not be funded, such as $10 million for a new education building at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee said senators might back off the cuts.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said savings of $15 million to $30 million from a new law that merges the Turnpike Authority with the Kansas Department of Transportation could be used for higher education.

“I would be willing to use (those savings) to keep higher ed where it was at in the governor’s proposal,” Masterson said.

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