If Gov. Sam Brownback is sincere in saying he wants to protect education as the state experiences a “hard dip” in revenues, that commitment shouldn’t come to a halt at 12th grade. So it’s worrisome that his budget office has mentioned an 8 percent cut for higher education in its planning for a fiscal 2014 budget.
Brownback told the Kansas Board of Regents in November that he doubted lawmakers would increase base operating funds for higher education, though there might be dollars for specific projects.
Fred Logan, vice chairman of the regents, told The Eagle editorial board Tuesday that he’s “guardedly optimistic” about Brownback’s budget, praising the governor’s recent initiatives focused on technical education and engineering and his leadership on the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University. Brownback also aided the University of Kansas’ successful effort to achieve its National Cancer Institute designation and has other good ideas for higher ed, recently calling on the regents system to encourage more startups and become the intellectual center for policymaking against human trafficking.
So an 8 percent cut in state funding for higher education, or about $50 million, would signal an unexpected change in priorities. It also would differ sharply from the regents’ requested 6.2 percent increase, which would include 1 percent raises for 18,000 employees, $2.8 million to improve the Wichita campus of the KU School of Medicine, and $1 million of the $75 million needed for a new health education building at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
The problem is that the income-tax cuts are projected to open a $295 million hole in the state budget for fiscal 2014 and cause more problems after that. A lot of state spending will need to be trimmed in the next few budget years and, to their credit, administrators across the regents system have demonstrated they know how to increase private funding and curtail spending.
But the public doesn’t want more higher-ed cuts: In the 2012 Kansas Speaks survey, conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, 47.2 percent of respondents favored keeping state funding for colleges and universities at current levels, while 37.4 percent wanted to see it increased.
The 8 percent cut is part of a budget-reduction scenario, which is part of the standard budget process for a governor. The regents have appealed, and it may not end up in the budget proposal the governor presents to the 2013 Legislature next month. If it does, though, lawmakers should think better of it.
It would be shortsighted to cut state support for higher education when Kansas’ recovering economy will need all the highly trained, career-ready, critically thinking college graduates it can get.
And as Logan told the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors this fall, “There is no better pro-growth strategy for Kansas than having a strong system of higher education.”