It's hard to imagine Kansas legislators could come up with a worse idea for funding repairs to state university buildings than applying a surcharge to local property taxes collected in university communities, but it seems they have succeeded in doing just that.
Members of a Kansas Senate task force assigned to look at ways to address $663 million in deferred maintenance at the state's six universities are considering a proposal that would tack an additional fee onto student tuition to help cover those costs. Their plan calls for increases of up to $5 per credit hour for Kansas residents and $15 per credit hour for out-of-state students.
The proposal comes at a time when tuition already has skyrocketed at state universities; at Kansas University, tuition for Kansas residents has doubled in the past five years. Adding a maintenance surcharge would exacerbate the tuition inflation that many fear is preventing Kansas students from seeking a university education.
Legislators continue to express the opinion that the Kansas Board of Regents and individual universities have been irresponsible in allowing their campuses to fall into such serious disrepair. In hindsight, it's always possible to second-guess how money was spent, but the fact remains that tight funding decisions made by the state Legislature have greatly contributed to the current situation.
For instance, a number of legislators have pointed to previous funding provided under the "Crumbling Classrooms" program. What did universities do with that money, they ask.
Well, in the first place, the Crumbling Classrooms funding was approved more than a decade ago - and it fell well below the estimated need even at the time. Although the regents provided a list of $288 million capital improvement needs in the fall of 1994, the 1996 Legislature approved only a $163 million bond issue to address those needs.
Is it any wonder the universities are falling behind?
The percentage of state university budgets funded by state tax dollars declined from 49 percent in 1985 to 29 percent in 2005. During that time, state universities have been forced to raise tuition to fund such essential items as lab equipment and salaries that are competitive enough to prevent top faculty members from being lured away by other universities.
Now, legislators apparently think it's a good idea to compound that problem by raising tuition to cover another expense that should be a state responsibility.
On the contrary, raising tuition for this purpose is a very bad idea both for students and for Kansas. Legislators need to go back to the drawing board to find a solution to the maintenance issue.