Here’s hoping that touring the state’s public universities will straighten out some lawmakers’ “Alice in Wonderland,” up-is-down logic on funding higher education.
Legislative leaders approved Monday having House and Senate budget committee members visit the six state universities, a community college and a technical college. “I think it is good for legislators to actually see what’s going on within the institutions,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
Kansas is one of only a handful of states that cut funding this year to public universities. Over the objections of Gov. Sam Brownback, lawmakers cut state aid by about $44 million this year and next.
Some House GOP leaders insisted on the cuts, but their reasoning then and in recent Eagle news articles hasn’t made sense:
• Lawmakers say they are concerned about tuition increases. Why then did they cut state funding, which resulted in more tuition increases to make up for the lost funding?
• Lawmakers say they are concerned that the universities aren’t doing a good job managing their money. So why did they punish universities that didn’t spend all their salary money last fiscal year?
• Lawmakers say the universities didn’t answer all their questions. So why cut funding before knowing the answers?
Wagle also has noted that salary caps imposed by the lawmakers go against their free-market principles.
Lawmakers also disregarded the strong wishes of the Kansas Board of Regents, university presidents and student government associations in setting new rules related to guns on campus. They failed to fund a new medical education building and training facility at the University of Kansas School of Medicine – a top priority of KU and Brownback – but authorized an adult stem cell research center that KU never sought.
What’s even more troubling is the disdain that some lawmakers have shown, mocking the worth of professors and presidents.
“If she thinks doing her job is so tough, and if she doesn’t think earning half a million dollars is enough to do her job, well – it’s a free market,” Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, said about KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “We’ll take applications for her job. I bet we get some good ones.”
Even before these latest cuts, there had been an 11 percent decline in state funding for higher ed from 2008 through 2012. The percentage of university budgets coming from state funding has also dropped dramatically over the past few decades – from about 75 percent in the 1970s to about 22 percent now.
House lawmakers say they have an obligation to hold universities accountable. That’s fine, but their insistence on cutting funding has seemed more like a personal grudge than rational policymaking.