Legislators to tour Kansas colleges, universities whose budgets they cut

The campus of Wichita State University.  (June 14, 2013)
The campus of Wichita State University. (June 14, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

Legislators are going back to school this month to visit state colleges and universities whose budgets they cut by $66 million five months ago.

Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees are scheduled to board buses starting Oct. 22 for six days of touring that will take them to all seven state-supported universities and some community college and technical schools.

The tour is part of a fact-finding expedition for the lawmakers that also includes a lengthy list of questions they’ve submitted covering just about all phases of university operations.

“I’m interested in knowing more about their programs and funding needs and having them make the case they need increased funding,” said Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, a first-term representative who serves on Appropriations. “I hope it will be a meaningful one-on-one discussion between the legislators and administrators.”

On June 1, lawmakers passed a budget that cut $33 million from higher education for this year and $32.8 million next year. When they voted, some lawmakers said they thought some of the cuts would be reversed by a veto from Gov. Sam Brownback.

But the cuts stood and university regents responded by increasing tuition.

Andy Schlapp, director of government relations at Wichita State University, said he and others have been working hard to get the answers that legislators have asked for.

He said most people don’t understand that WSU is actually a constellation of separate corporations with their own funding sources, spending plans and limitations on how they can use money.

For example, funds donated for athletic facilities or collected from students for housing or to run the student union can’t be diverted to pay professor salaries, he said.

“It’s a very complex organization,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what we do.”

That complexity will be on full display when the lawmakers tour the campus Oct. 23.

The day is scheduled to begin at 8:30 with a presentation and questions and answers with university President John Bardo, followed by a tour of the main campus. After lunch, the lawmakers will board a bus and ride out to the National Institute for Aviation Research facility at the former Kansas Coliseum, followed by a visit to the National Center for Aviation Training at Col. James Jabara Airport.

“I’ll come to the presentation with an open mind,” Kahrs said. “I was not happy to see the tuition increases, for sure. We need to keep regents’ schools affordable for Kansans.”

Kahrs, a lawyer, said the Wichita State leg of the tour will be the only one he can attend, but he plans to meet separately with the president of the University of Kansas and hopes to set up meetings with other universities’ officials. He also said he’ll be tapping his fellow committee members for their impressions from the tour.

Campus tours used to be routine for budget committee members, but were suspended about four years ago as the state struggled through budget crises. The tours are being reinstated now because of high turnover in the Legislature and the committees, officials said.

Senate Ways and Means member Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she plans to take the full statewide tour.

As a member of the committee for the past three years, she said she hasn’t done the tour before, although she has some familiarity with university operations from her former job in space design for the University of Kansas.

That included work she did at KU’s medical residency program in Wichita, which will be bypassed by this year’s university tour.

Francisco said she’s looking forward to visiting the other schools and getting a handle on such issues as facilities needs and deferred maintenance.

Being there can give a lawmaker a perspective on what needs to be done beyond what might be indicated by written reports, she said.

“You should put a face with an organization and put a place with an organization,” she said.

Kevin Johnson, general counsel and legislative liaison at Emporia State University, said he’s happy to comply with the legislators’ voluminous request for data, which he likened to the workload of preparing for a trial.

“If they were investors investing in something, they’d be asking similar questions,” he said. “Really they are investing the taxpayers’ money.”

Schlapp said he hopes it’s a starting point of an ongoing and in-depth dialog with lawmakers.

“I don’t see us all of a sudden getting a lot more funding,” he said.

However, he said he wants legislators to know the competition WSU is facing for students and what it takes to educate them to be competitive in a worldwide labor market.

“What we do matters,” he said. “We’re trying to do good for the Kansas economy.”

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