Topeka — House Republican leaders who are calling for higher education to take a 4 percent state budget cut say that public universities are sitting on $422 million in various funds that could be redirected to pay for other expenses.
“Obviously utilizing these funds would require foresight and planning on the part of university officials; the unencumbered funds are not like petty cash,” said House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton.
“But I would like to see the universities look at all their funding options, not just always automatically going to students and taxpayers," Rhoades said.
But Kansas University officials on Wednesday disputed the meaning of the cash balance list circulated by top GOP officials in the House.
"I’m confused as to why this keeps being brought up as an option, when it clearly is not," said Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs at KU. "No business would operate as is being suggested by going months without the funds needed to pay its employees and vendors. The university is following sensible and universally accepted business practices,” Caboni said.
House GOP leaders are fighting for a higher education cut as fellow Republican Gov. Sam Brownback tours the state urging public support for keeping post-secondary funding at the current level.
On Tuesday, Brownback visited Kansas University, saying that higher education was key to helping improve the state's future.
The Republican-dominated Legislature returns for the wrap-up session on May 8 to write a state budget and work on tax issues.
Before a monthlong break, the House approved cutting higher education by nearly $30 million, or 4 percent. The plan would also cap salaries and sweep other funds for a total cut of approximately $60 million; KU's share of the cut would be $20 million. The Senate proposed a 2 percent budget cut.
House GOP leaders are circulating a report on cash balances at the regents universities that they say proves higher education has reserves that could be used to pay for other operations of the schools and absorb the proposed cuts.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said GOP leaders in the House are committed to higher education, but the growth of cash balances at the universities means "there is room for savings."
He said the goal is to reduce the tax burden on families as tuition has increased throughout the system.
“Historically, Kansas families have borne the brunt of university budgets that continue to increase every year through both higher tuition rates and state taxes,” Merrick said. “The House budget plan found savings across all areas of state government, including the Regents, that will ensure our ability to keep the tax burden on Kansas families low.”
But officials at KU disputed the meaning of the report.
Many of the funds on the list are restricted funds, meaning they can only be used for the purposes for which they were collected, they said. And as far as general fee funds, those dollars are used to pay salaries and expenses, according to KU.
"Looking at the July 1 balances, as these reports usually do, means they are looking at a time when we have money collected to cover expenses until tuition comes in," said KU spokesman Jack Martin.
Caboni said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, Provost Jeff Vitter, and chief budget officials at KU have spent a lot of time in Topeka answering questions about the cash balances.