Topeka — Legislative leaders view higher education as the big winner so far in the debate in Kansas over the state budget.
Many legislators see higher education as a big winner in the latest debates over the next state budget, but their actions may not be enough to keep tuition at state universities from increasing later this year.
The Senate expects to vote Tuesday and the House vote is expected later this week on a proposed $13.4 billion budget for the state’s 2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The final version was drafted by negotiators for the two chambers, and they backed away from cuts they had been considering in higher education funding.
The budget negotiators also included federal economic stimulus dollars in the higher education system’s budget. The pool of state and stimulus dollars for fiscal 2010 would be 1.3 percent higher than the funding under the current budget.
But that small increase wouldn’t make up for an earlier round of cuts on university, community college and technical college campuses. And Reggie Robinson, president and chief executive officer for the state Board of Regents, noted that the stimulus dollars come with strings so some programs won’t avoid further pain.
The regents said earlier this month that they could freeze university tuition rates for the 2009-10 academic year if legislators backed off further spending cuts and included stimulus funds in the budget. But Robinson said the regents will have to review the budget in detail before deciding whether it’s sufficient to allow a tuition freeze.
Robinson said the regents and other higher education officials are pleased with how the negotiations turned out, but, “It’s not a hold-harmless position for us.”
“It protected us from cuts beyond the difficult cuts that we were preparing to make,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
But Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature clearly hope the proposed budget will lead to a tuition freeze.
“That will make it easier for Kansas kids to go to college,” Sebelius said in her most recent news conference. “In this day and age, that’s critical to our future.”
When the current budget took effect in July 2008, the regents expected higher education to receive $858 million in general state revenues. But the economy soured, and Sebelius told state government to prepare for cuts.
When the current budget was revised, higher education was left with $808 million, a reduction of nearly 6 percent.
The House and Senate then approved deeper reductions for fiscal 2010. Senators were proposing the deepest cuts, nearly 7 percent more from the revised 2009 budget.
Then budget negotiators concluded the state couldn’t make such deep cuts in higher education and only a modest cut in state aid to public schools and still satisfy the requirements of the recently enacted federal stimulus law.
The negotiators packed nearly $10 million of stimulus funds back into the current higher education budget and $40 million worth in fiscal 2010.
The result is a good-looking budget for a tough year: The total of state and stimulus funds rises from $818 million under the current budget to $828 million in fiscal 2010.
“Higher education really did very well, compared to what they had expected out of this budget,” said Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican. “They probably came out better than anybody.”
But Robinson noted that legislators are earmarking all of the stimulus funds for building maintenance projects, and the regents had hoped for more flexibility. Also, he noted, there’s no promise of additional stimulus funds after fiscal 2011.
He also said the proposed 2010 budget tells state agencies to give employees an average 1 percent pay increase and longevity bonuses, without providing additional dollars to cover the cost.
“It also takes away some flexibility,” Robinson said.