Senate committee approves $2 million for Wichita State center, nixes funding for KU program

A higher education spending plan approved by a Senate committee Tuesday includes $2 million for a technology transfer center at Wichita State University, the first part of the university’s plans to build an innovation campus.

But the plan rolled out by the Senate Ways and Means Committee drops $2 million the governor had recommended to go to the University of Kansas for a translational chemical biology program.

Both programs are meant to help transfer research at the university into the private sector and were included in Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2015 budget recommendations.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, noted at the committee meeting that $2 million, the amount taken away from KU, will go to a grant for independent and private colleges.

Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, the main proponent of both changes, contended that the independent colleges have a higher graduation rate than the regents universities. But Democrats disputed that on the grounds that the two sets of schools calculate graduation rates differently, which Arpke acknowledged.

A minority committee report written by Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said that independent colleges graduate 31.4 percent of their students, below KU’s rate of 32.2 percent.

Kelly contended the committee’s budget “capriciously and unfairly targets the University of Kansas.” In addition to dropping the funding for the chemical biology program, the committee declined to grant KU’s request for $1.4 million to upgrade KU Medical Center.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the committee’s chair, called Kelly’s report “inflammatory.”

“She has every right to have her opinion of what’s happening,” he said after the hearing. But he objected to the tone of the report.

“But to characterize KU not getting everything they ask for and wanted as an attack on our flagship university … it bothered me from a professional standpoint,” Masterson said.

He did agree that some of the questions raised about the private and independent colleges were legitimate and need to be looked at further.

Arpke, who chairs the subcommittee that handles education funding, defended the budget recommendations and said the University of Kansas has a large enough endowment that it can fund some of the initiatives it wants without additional state money.

Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor of the University of Kansas, called the budget disappointing. She did not fully endorse the idea that KU had been attacked, but she questioned why other universities did not lose similar programs supported by the governor to use universities to foster economic growth.

“I think that’s a reasonable view. It’s hard to explain otherwise why that project was taken out and the others were not,” said Gray-Little.

Andy Schlapp, WSU’s executive director of government relations, said he was pleased overall with the budget. An amendment from Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, shifted the funding for the technology transfer center into the university’s operating budget to give it greater flexibility.

Schlapp said the university’s innovation campus will help researchers at the university connect with businesses. Both Gov. Sam Brownback and President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, have voiced strong support. Schlapp said O’Donnell’s amendment will help the university get started sooner.

“We’re having a tremendous amount of industry and business support from around the world. … This gives us the maximum flexibility to attract those businesses,” Schlapp said. “A lot of the capital needs are taken care of, so this allows us to use it in operational and other areas, to make sure we can get this up and running as quick as possible.”