The baseless Statehouse narrative that universities are out of control and ripe for cutting got personal last week for Wichita, which learned that legislative budget proposals could mean the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita would lose the program for first- and second-year medical students and 15 medical resident positions.
Such unacceptable cuts would be as bad for the state’s health as they would be for Wichita’s economy and status as a medical hub, because of the Wichita campus’ crucial role in training and supplying family physicians statewide. And in rolling back the 2011 expansion of the Wichita campus from a two-year to a four-year medical school, KU and the state would be breaking the trust of Wichita-area leaders who were part of raising millions of dollars privately for the expansion.
Other potential consequences at KU sound bad, too, including the closing of the KU School of Medicine-Salina, reducing admitted nursing students by 50 and risking nonrenewal of the National Cancer Institute designation.
But every part of the Kansas Board of Regents system would be affected, whether what prevails is the House’s 4 percent cut (a loss of $29 million in operating dollars and $10 million in salary cuts) or the Senate’s 2 percent cut ($15.2 million less). Briefing the regents last week, the university presidents forecast faculty layoffs, fewer and larger classes, and higher tuition.
“Did we make somebody mad? Why are we such a target?” wondered regent Christine Downey-Schmidt of Inman about the legislative target on higher ed.
As regent Robba Moran observed with similar frustration, other states view universities as promoting economic growth and are stepping up their investment accordingly.
Yet in Kansas, some lawmakers are questioning the return on the state’s investment in higher education and complaining about steady tuition increases – hikes made necessary because overall state funding for universities has dropped 8 percent since 2008.
Much of the legislative budget work ahead is riding on how the two chambers resolve their differences on taxes, and especially whether the House relents and agrees with the governor and the Senate to extend the current 6.3 percent sales-tax rate after July 1. It’s possible that Friday’s slightly improved revenue estimates will give lawmakers more room to work with.
And let it be said that the state’s cash-flow problems are due to Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax-cut plan.
But Brownback, who will kick off a campus tour Monday with visits to Wichita State University and Butler Community College, recognizes that higher education is vital for economic growth, which is why he prefers to keep universities’ funding flat in the next state budget.
Now, he must make that case to lawmakers starting with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover.
And those legislators and others from the Wichita area need to be mindful of the harm that cutting higher ed would do to the region they represent.