Topeka Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Gary Sherrer on Thursday lobbied legislators for a $50 million funding increase for higher education, saying the schools and students have been hurt by recent budget cuts totaling $100 million.
“What we want back is half of what was taken away a year ago,” Sherrer told the Legislative Education Planning Committee.
As state revenues plummeted during the past several years, higher education was cut 12 percent, back to its 2006 level.
While members of the committee sympathized with the funding challenges, some noted the overall state budget problems that will be compounded when nearly $500 million in federal stimulus funds runs out in the next fiscal year.
“There is also some realism that the money we would like to have is not going to be there for awhile,” said state Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center.
Huebert echoed Gov.-elect Sam Brownback's proposals of freezing state spending, looking for more budget reductions to bridge the revenue gap and growing the economy.
Huebert said the regents should consider whether it would be more efficient to operate fewer community colleges. There are 19 community colleges in Kansas.
Sherrer said the cuts to higher education have led to dramatic tuition increases that will prevent some students from seeking a college education.
For the first time in Kansas history, tuition makes up a larger percentage of higher education funding than state appropriations.
In addition, he said, student debt has skyrocketed, and Kansas ranks 36th in per capita need-based financial aid to students.
“We are beginning to price our students out of a public education,” he said.
Despite the state's budget problems, Sherrer said the request for a $50 million increase was reasonable and was needed to cover increased costs, tackle a maintenance backlog and fund targeted initiatives to help solve critical workforce shortages in nursing, engineering and other areas. He said making no increase in funding actually would constitute an additional cut because of the increased costs facing higher education.
Asked about where the Legislature would find the funds for an increase, Sherrer, a former lieutenant governor, said it was his experience that when legislators want to bolster funding, even in the worst of times, they are able to do it.
“Where there is the will, there is always the way,” he said.