Politics & Government

Regents push higher ed funding boost

TOPEKA — Higher education officials in Kansas aren't backing away from their proposal to boost spending on state universities and colleges by $50 million, despite opposition from Gov.-elect Sam Brownback.

Brownback, a Republican who takes office Jan. 10, said that because of the state's budget problems, it doesn't have the money to execute the "Kansas Commitment" plan from the state Board of Regents. The plan would increase state spending on the higher education system by about 7 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The incoming governor's comments received an immediate response from regents chairman Gary Sherrer, who said, "The board's position has not changed."

"Because higher education is an economic engine, we'll continue to make the case to policymakers that higher education should be a greater priority," Sherrer, a former Republican lieutenant governor, said in a statement.

Brownback is promising to keep the state budget balanced without increasing taxes. Legislative researchers have projected that the gap between projected revenues and existing spending commitments is approaching $500 million.

The governor-elect said that he favors shifting resources within higher education to increase funding for programs and institutions directly linked to the economy. He named the University of Kansas Medical Center, its pharmacy school, the veterinary medicine program at Kansas State University and aviation programs at Wichita State University as examples.

Brownback also said some states are discontinuing degree programs that are graduating small numbers of students and that perhaps Kansas should follow their examples.

But Sherrer said he thinks the state can find the money for the regents' proposal.

"The board has identified the resources needed to protect the state's higher education infrastructure, keep college affordable, and boost the state's economy," Sherrer said. "We've provided the governor-elect and the Legislature with targeted investment opportunities that all produce much-needed economic growth."

The state expects to spend about $751 million of its tax dollars on higher education under the current budget, about $100 million less than was allocated before the state started making budget cuts in 2009 because of the recession. The regents' plan for the next fiscal year will offset some of those cuts and the expected loss of federal economic stimulus dollars.

But the plan also would direct $14 million in state dollars toward high-demand academic programs, with training more engineers as one goal.