Politics & Government

Legislators, university leaders to meet over budget cuts

The president of the Kansas Senate hopes she can persuade other legislators to meet with university leaders and work through disagreements over budget cuts passed earlier this year.

Sen. Susan Wagle of Wichita said she will ask other legislative leaders in a meeting July 29 to appoint an interim committee to visit the six state universities.

“It’s like we’re all a big family, and we’ve had this family fight,” Wagle said. “Now we need to talk.”

The speaker of the Kansas House, Ray Merrick of Stilwell, said he agrees with Wagle’s idea.

“Susan and I agree that we need to meet with the Regents as part of our overall budget strategy for the upcoming session,” Merrick said in an e-mail Monday. “Our members have heard from parents, students, and educators and have a number questions that went unanswered during the appropriations process last session.”

Legislators have said they cut funding to the universities by only 1.5 percent in the last session, but university leaders said that a “salary cap” added to the severity of the cuts. And they said the cuts came after several consecutive years of reduced funding.

Wagle said university leaders have warned her that this year’s cuts could damage their ability to play their role in education and job creation. She criticized them for not engaging enough with legislators, and said she has heard from students and parents about the 8 percent tuition increase that Wichita State University imposed after the Legislature cut WSU’s budget. The other Regents’ universities also increased tuition for the upcoming school year.

“That 8 percent increase is kicking them hard,” she said.

But she also criticized the salary cap.

“It has to go,” she said. “It works against free market principles that a lot of conservatives advocate for, including higher wages as a reward for work.

“If you really are a believer in free market principles, you don’t set a salary cap in the legislature. You decide how much money they have to spend, but you let the Regents make their own decisions about hiring.”

She said the universities have mistakes to address. House members like Merrick, who proposed the cuts, complained during the session that they couldn’t seem to get university people to engage with them enough during the legislative debates to answer questions about spending.

“We had that same problem in the Senate,” Wagle said. “My senators didn’t feel like they got the information from universities that they wanted.”

And she said the University of Kansas Chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, did not help her cause when in April she said the impending cuts might prompt KU to eliminate the medical school in Salina and significantly reduce the one in Wichita.

Mark Hutton, a Wichita legislator and member of the House appropriations committee, said getting a conversation going would be “awesome.”

“I would like to have seen it happen during the session, frankly,” he said.

If there is any talk of restoring the money that got cut, though, Hutton said, “I hope that what the universities will do is fix the tuition increase, look for ways to lower the cost of education and be more transparent about how they are spending money.”

Andy Schlapp, WSU’s director of governmental relations, said Wagle’s idea was welcome at WSU.

“I would love to have that conversation.”

He also said he attended most of the legislative session and talked to leaders involved. Representatives of the other Regents universities also did, he said; they work as a team to address the Legislature.

“I did meet with them (legislators) during the session, and they were understanding of our position,” he said.

The salary cap

New limitations legislators set on salaries in the state university system – portrayed as a salary “cap” in debate in the Legislature – ensured an additional substantial cut in money for salaries at universities because of the way the law was written.

Unlike most agencies, state money for the universities’ salaries comes through a block grant to the Board of Regents. It is that grant that was reduced, leaving less money to pay employees.

Although there is an amount designated for salaries in the funding they receive from the state, universities do have the flexibility to shift money from other budget lines to employee pay.

This year, budget negotiators in the Legislature took money from those universities that overspent or underspent their salary budget line.

Universities that have shifted money to pay their employees more than the state budgeted for personnel saw their salary funding cut by the amount of the additional employee pay.

Universities that spent less state money than they were budgeted for salaries, generally due to open positions, in most cases had their salary line reduced to what they actually spent.

The result is that the universities actually all received cuts due to the calculated reduction of money for salaries.

The cuts varied widely across the university system, from a low of $276,000 at Fort Hays State University to nearly $4million each for KU and K-State and their affiliated programs. WSU lost $868,125 in the shuffle.

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