On Monday, Gov. Sam Brownback will begin a series of visits to state universities, community colleges and technical schools across Kansas. The goal of the visits, according to a news release from the governor’s office, is to “emphasize his support of his proposed budgets” for those schools.
With all due respect, the governor will be preaching to the choir during his tour. These schools already know the importance of higher education in the state. They may not be particularly enthused about the governor’s proposal to keep their state funding level, but that’s a better prospect than the 2 percent budget cut being sought by the Kansas Senate or the 4 percent supported by the House.
The governor’s proposal, of course, doesn’t come without a price tag. To offset the impact of reduced income tax revenue, the Brownback budget depends on maintaining the current sales tax, which is scheduled to drop in July, and borrowing heavily from other funds — especially the highway fund — to cover general fund expenses.
At this point, it seems unlikely that any budget approved by the state this year won’t extend the sales tax and borrow from other funds. That being the case, using that money to boost higher education seems like a good investment for the state.
During last week’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting, state university leaders discussed the impact of 2 percent or 4 percent cuts in their annual budgets. For Kansas University, the 4 percent cut and salary cap supported by the House would result in a loss of more than $20 million. As Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little pointed out, that’s way more than the university can simply absorb without making serious cuts. She projected that KU would have to eliminate 38 faculty positions and risk losing other faculty to schools that can offer larger salaries, perhaps endangering KU’s membership in the Association of American Universities.
Devastating cuts to KU Medical Center programs also would be necessary, she said. The medical school would have to admit fewer students, close its innovative program in Salina and cut back the program in Wichita. Gray-Little also raised the possibility that the cuts could endanger the Medical Center’s prestigious National Cancer Institute status.
KU isn’t the only school that would be hurt. Kansas State University President Kirk Schultz called the proposed budget cuts “momentum killers” for his university, and the governor has noted the importance of the workforce development taking place at community and technical colleges throughout the state.
House Speaker Ray Merrick responded by saying there is room for savings at state universities because their cash balances have grown significantly in recent years. Again, with all due respect to Merrick, universities have been cutting their budgets for years. Dipping into whatever cash balances they have been able to accumulate doesn’t represent a “savings”; it is merely depleting a finite resource.
Limited resources are forcing the governor and legislators to make difficult spending choices and use some undesirable tactics — continuing the sales tax and dipping into highway funds — to shore up their budget plans. It’s not a pretty picture, but it will only be made worse by spending cuts that strangle important higher education initiatives in the state.