Senate has $525M plan for universities

? Senate budget writers Thursday agreed to plan to provide $525 million over five years for hundreds of repair projects at state universities.

“I think it is a sincere and significant step in addressing the deferred maintenance issue, and at the same time takes into consideration other obligations that we have at the state,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer.

Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Nelson Galle said, “The Senate plan represents a substantial and creative solution to an extremely challenging issue.”

One committee member, however, didn’t like the plan.

“I’m a supporter of educational institutions, but I think we need to see more commitment from the regents that they will do a better job with the people’s tax dollars than they have in the past,” said state Sen. Chris Steineger, D-Kansas City.

The plan would provide $525 million over five years for Kansas University and the other five regents universities. It would continue an increase in funding after that.

It also gives first priority to community colleges, technical schools and Washburn University to draw from $200 million in no-interest loans for repair and maintenance projects.

The regents have identified $663 million worth of needed repairs at universities, but said they could make headway by receiving $100 million per year.

Community colleges have priced their repairs at $150 million.

Higher education leaders have said the backlog of repairs has increased over the years because of inadequate state funding. But paying for the repairs has proven to be one of the most difficult issues facing lawmakers.

Proposals to increases taxes, tuition and Kansas Turnpike tolls have fallen by the wayside.

The Senate committee plan relies on available revenue, and perhaps even new revenue from the recently approved expansion of gambling.

“What we’re talking about is honest, new dollars instead of reshuffling dollars around,” Umbarger said.

The proposal joins other competing plans that will be scrutinized when the full Legislature returns Wednesday for its wrap-up session.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has asked lawmakers to approve $62.7 million for the universities to handle immediate repair problems. Included in that would be $8.8 million for utility tunnel work at KU and $7.9 million for replacing equipment at the Applegate Energy Center at KU Medical Center.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders have proposed a plan that relies primarily on providing low-interest loans and would allow regents counties to increase local sales taxes to help pay for repairs.

Both the House GOP and Senate committee plan would pay off earlier crumbling classroom bonds to make $15 million more per year available for actual repair work.

The Senate adds a one-time $45 million appropriation from a disaster relief fund, similar to Sebelius’ recommendation. And the Senate plan contains a number of additional revenue transfers and appropriations.

Senators also said they would develop tax credits for private donors who want to help pay for maintenance projects.