Archive for Thursday, March 26, 1998

HOUSE TENTATIVELY APPROVES HIGHER-ED PLAN

March 26, 1998

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— The plan, which restructures governance of Kansas' higher education institutions, still faces an uncertain road in the Senate.

The Kansas House on Wednesday gave first nod to a bill that would abolish the Kansas Board of Regents in favor of a more powerful state Council on Higher Education

The bill also would make Topeka's Washburn University a state instead of a city college and give the state a bigger role in the financing of community colleges and vocational technical schools.

House Bill 2793 was approved 78-46 after it was changed to include some tax breaks for those who pay tuition and related postsecondary school costs.

A final House roll call vote on the measure is scheduled for today. If approval is repeated, the bill advances to the Senate. It is the companion measure to a proposed constitutional amendment passed last week by the House, 97-25. It carries the implementation details that would kick in should that amendment be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Kansas Senate and then by the public in a statewide vote.

Gov. Bill Graves and Senate leaders have expressed reservations about the plan.

Rep. David Adkins, a Leawood Republican and the plan's leading legislative proponent, acknowledged Wednesday that its fate remains uncertain.

``Frankly,'' he said, ``it had greater support in the House today than I had expected it would.''

The proposed amendment and its companion bill have divided lawmakers as well as the state's higher education establishment. The Board of Regents, an appointed panel that oversees the state's six public universities, has opposed it.

The community college and vocational technical school associations are supporters of the restructuring plan, which backers say would bring long overdue coordination and efficiency to the state's sprawling postsecondary system.

Those schools currently fall under the nominal oversight of the state Board of Education, which oversees K-12 schools. They also are heavily reliant upon local property taxes. The new governance scheme, with some exceptions, would cap local levies for the schools at 20 mills or at 10 mills in counties where schools consolidate. State tax dollars would make up for lost local taxes revenues.

Estimated cost of the plan after the changes made Wednesday is about $190 million over the next four fiscal years.

Lawrence lawmakers divided their votes on the bill.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a Republican, voted for it even though his proposed amendment allowing community colleges to, ``opt-out'' of the plan was rejected by colleagues.

``It's not what I would have written,'' he said of the bill. ``But we've had 23 studies on higher education and we finally have something to vote on.''

Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard and Troy Findley, also of Lawrence, voted against the measure. Each cited similar concerns.

``I still don't believe it really benefits the regents institutions,'' Ballard said. ``There's still no long-term guarantee we'll get any additional funding, and I don't favor abolishment of the Board of Regents. They've done a good job.''

``In the end run,'' Findley said, ``I'm not convinced this will be good for regents schools like KU.''

Findley said the greater coordination among postsecondary schools sought by supporters of the plan can be achieved without a constitutional amendment and other wholesale changes in the current law.

``Coordination? We can do that already,'' he said.

The bill apparently picked up some additional backing Wednesday after Rep. Bob Krehbiel, a Pretty Prairie Democrat, attached an amendment allowing a $500 a year income tax credit to help offset the costs of postsecondary tuition and related expenses. The credits would be limited to families earning $80,000 or less per year or individuals earning $40,000 or less.

Adkins said although the Senate has promised to begin committee hearings on the bill Monday, it will take additional scrutiny from senators during their upcoming break, if the bill is to have a real chance of being passed by them this legislative session.

``I'm a realist,'' he said, ``and we're fairly late in the session.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is shields@ljworld.com.

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