Politics & Government

Heads of KU, K-State blast proposed change to higher ed funding

The campus at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The campus at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Eagle file photo

The heads of the state’s two largest universities are seeking help from alumni in their efforts to convince Gov. Sam Brownback to veto a budget provision that they say unfairly penalizes their schools.

The budget, which lawmakers narrowly passed early Monday, changes how the state calculates cuts to higher education. The change helps smaller universities at the expense of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University.

Brownback is expected to cut spending for higher education by at least 3 percent next school year after he signs the budget, costing the state’s regents universities nearly $17.7 million in state aid.

This fiscal year, all universities had state funding cut 3 percent across the board in March. But the budget bill for the next fiscal year bases the cut on universities’ total operating budgets, meaning that federal money, tuition dollars and private grants are considered in calculating the cut.

That will save smaller regents institutions money but will mean deeper cuts for KU and K-State. The state won’t see any increased benefit to its coffers, because the overall cut will remain the same.

KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and K-State interim president Richard Myers criticized the policy in a joint letter to alumni groups on Wednesday, saying “this formula penalizes Kansas State University and the University of Kansas, whose all-funds budgets are higher because of our large research portfolios. In essence, this formula punishes K-State and KU for conducting research and successfully securing federal research grants that bring new dollars to Kansas.”

“In addition to harming the two universities and the state we serve, this type of funding decision sends a terrible message to the nation that Kansas does not value earning research grant funding and that our state actively penalizes our research universities when they succeed,” the letter stated. “The reality is, the language in the budget does not raise any new revenue for the state and serves only to punish Kansas State University and the University of Kansas for being successful research universities.”

Gray-Little and Myers are asking alumni to contact Brownback’s office and encourage him to line-item veto the provision.

Brownback holds degrees from both K-State and KU. His office said he would carefully review all provisions in the budget bill before acting on it.

‘That hurts’

Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, whose district includes Pittsburg State University, crafted the provision. He defended the move to shield the smaller universities.

“In the allotments made in March, it was a $1 million cut to PSU. That hurts. That hurts a small university. Universities have fixed costs. For larger institutions like KU and K-State, these cuts don’t hurt as bad,” LaTurner said. “So actually with my proviso, it’s a better deal for every university and the state except for KU main campus and K-State … and I think that’s appropriate.”

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, whose district includes KU, said universities can’t simply move their research dollars to fill holes elsewhere in the budget.

“If a private entity contracts with the university to do a research project, then that’s part of these research dollars,” she said. “All those contracts are limited. … You’ve agreed to spend those dollars in this way to do the research: The researcher has to be paid, the cost of the lab, the cost of the materials, whatever you’re doing.”

Francisco worried that students would bear the burden of having to make up for the cut to state aid because the Legislature removed a cap on tuition increases as part of the budget bill

“So if they (lawmakers) want to complain about why is tuition higher at KU or K-State (next year), it’s because we’re giving them fewer state general fund dollars,” she said.

‘They should be done fairly’

The Kansas Board of Regents warned lawmakers in a letter in January that it did not “wish to see our collaborative efforts hurt by an action that takes state funding from one university to give to another.”

LaTurner said he hopes Brownback will avoid cutting higher education but that he disagrees with the regents that the universities should “rise and fall together.” He said his job is to represent his district.

Under a 3 percent across-the-board cut, Pittsburg State would lose nearly $1.1 million. LaTurner’s proposed change would save the school more than $300,000. He said he hoped this would enable the school to avoid a tuition increase.

“The honest answer is my job is to represent Pittsburg State University, and I had an opportunity to do something that benefited them,” LaTurner said. “And so I’m going to take that chance every time it comes up.”

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, whose district includes Emporia State University, said on the floor of the Senate that the proposal played a role in swaying him to vote for the budget after initially voting against it.

He noted that Emporia State does not support the policy change but said that “as the senator who represents that district, I do greatly appreciate it.”

Lawmakers from the communities that surround KU and K-State, however, blasted what they saw as blatant unfairness.

“I think that any cuts to higher education are a bad idea at this point, but if they’re done, they should be done fairly,” said Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence.

Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, saw the proposed policy change as overtly tied to the upcoming election.

“The intent to me is very clear. It’s an election year, and if you look at the two universities who get zapped, look at who represents them in the Senate and the House,” Kelly said, noting that Lawrence’s and Manhattan’s legislative delegations are primarily made up of Democrats.

“This is strictly providing some cover for the (Republican) legislators who represent the smaller universities,” she said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

Impact to universities

University

3 percent cut (across the board)

3 percent cut (proposed change)

Difference

Emporia State University

-$948,769

-$653,548

$295,221

Fort Hays State University

-$1,016,467

-$875,204

$141,263

Kansas State University

-$3,073,563

-$4,076,559

-$1,002,996

Pittsburg State University

-$1,085,716

-$773,568

$312,148

University of Kansas

-$4,088,702

-$5,197,461

-$1,108,759

Wichita State University

-$2,236,925

-$2,165,572

$71,353

KU Medical Center

-$3,365,797

-$2,591,806

$773,991

K-State Veterinary Medical Center

-$452,898

-$344,984

$107,914

K-State Extension Systems & Agriculture Research

-$1,422,673

-$980,754

$441,919

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