Archive for Saturday, February 3, 1990

SATURDAY COLUMN

February 3, 1990

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Perhaps there always is as much confusion, questionable leadership, lack of party discipline and shortages of enough tax dollars to fund all requests at most every legislative session in Topeka, but according to some longtime observers it would be difficult to point to many other legislative sessions to match the show currently under way in Topeka. One former distinguished legislator termed what is going on in the Statehouse as "Disneyland Topeka."

Such an environment is bad for the state, for its citizens and for all the programs that are dependent on state funding. And, as higher education is one of the major recipients of state funding, the confusion, lack of leadership and selfish interests in Topeka all take a toll on higher education and Kansas University.

One of the problems in Topeka is the legislative process for state funding. Little can be done to correct the situation, however, sound, long-range planning would be a big help. As it is, legislators study requests for funding and various budget proposals and then approve fiscal appropriations a year ahead of the time the monies will be dispensed. Consequently, there really isn't much correlation between the timing of requests for funds, the availability of funds, economic conditions in the state and the actual use of the tax dollars.

LAST YEAR, for example, legislators gave their approval for a number of costly programs and, for whatever reason, the governor failed to veto some of these high-priced projects even though he and his aides knew they posed potentially serious budget problems. Now, lawmakers have fewer dollars in the state's reserve and economic donditions in Kansas do not provide much reason for optimism about substantially increased tax revenues. This causes legislators to be far more cautious relative to current funding requests for badly needed programs.

Complicating the situation, Governor Hayden seems to be guided to a significant degree by frequent polls he has commissioned to give him a current reading of public sentiment about various state matters. If a poll suggests the public is interested or concerned about a specific situation, he will place that matter at the top of his priority list regardless if only a short time prior to the poll another matter or concern was at the top of his priority list. How can there be long-range planning with this kind of a flip-flopping of priorities?

Not long ago there was great interest and support throughout the state to improve the state's educational systems and to fund the third year of the Margin of Excellence. These matters had scored quite high in the governor's polls. However, as soon as the new property tax statements arrived at households and businesses throughout the state, "education" suddenly was replaced by "taxes" as the top concern of Kansans. Now Hayden is devoting most of his efforts to come up with some kind of a property tax relief program, and "education" has slipped into the shadows.

THIS IS understandable in our political system when officeholders must try to balance conflicting interests and at the same time, try to please as many people as possible in order to win re-election. Right now, higher property taxes are the number one concern of most Kansans, and Governor Hayden has formally announced his candidacy for re-election.

Due to these situations, KU and higher education are facing tough times.

The Kansas Board of Regents presented a budget request for $660 million for fiscal year 1991, and the governor cut this to $622.9 in his budget message to the legislature.

Included in the Regents budget was approximately $16 million to fund the third year of the Margin of Excellence...a program to raise faculty salaries at the regents schools closer to faculty pay levels at their peer institutions.

The governor says he supports the Margin of Excellence and realizes it is important, but he has eliminated all funding for the program in his budget. As a sop to the schools, he has suggested a $50,000 appropriation to each regents school to be used to reward top faculty members.

THE MARGIN received excellent support in last year's legislative session, and most legislators continue to be highly supportive of this critical program. But, this is a case where priorities and needs can and do change year by year and without long-range planning, important programs can be severely damaged and/or abandoned.

In addition to eliminating Margin funding in his budget, the governor made additional cuts in the regents budget. Most legislators realize the importance of adequate funding for the regents schools, but they also know of the many relatively new costly spending programs already in place and they do not want to drain the state's reserve to a dangerously low level. Therefore, higher education is facing serious funding problems in Topeka.

It would be unrealistic to suggest that most any budget cannot be trimmed and/or reduced without critical damage to a business, industry, school system or family budget. Most of those who prepare budgets take into consideration that there may be reasons or needs to trim or adjust certain aspects of their budgets. Certainly there are areas with the regents budget where reductions could be made without long-lasting damage to the various schools. However, competition for superior faculty members and top-flight students is intense, and if Kansans want a truly outstanding comprehensive University of Kansas with academic excellence and the accompanying positive spin-offs for the entire state, budget cuts must be made with extreme care.

IN TIGHT economic times, all state agencies must share in any belt-tightening efforts, and this includes the state's regents institutions. And, like it or not, those calling the shots on where budget cuts are to be made also need to win voter support to be re-elected to office.

So, although elected officials may recognize the importance of various programs, they also must give consideration as to how their votes will affect their own chances of re-election.

This is why it is important for all those throughout the state who believe in the importance of a superior system of higher education to keep the pressure on their respective lawmakers to give adequate fiscal support for the universities.

This includes the best possible funding for restoration of the Regents base budget and funding for the Margin of Excellence.

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