The relationship between higher education officials and Republican legislative leaders can be described in two words: It's complicated.
After a budget-cutting 2013 legislative session, the Kansas Board of Regents spent much of its annual retreat this week discussing how to deal with those leaders in preparation for the 2014 legislative session, which starts in January.
Regents Chairman Fred Logan, of Leawood, said he sees no reason for universities to apologize.
"There needs to be a full-throated defense about what we are doing," Logan said.
But Republicans in charge of the Legislature, in word and deed, show they have problems with Kansas' public higher education system.
Last session, they passed a 3 percent budget cut to universities over two years, and sidelined Kansas University Medical Center's No. 1 priority of building a new medical education building.
And they seem poised to cut more.
Friction is something new
When the regents floated an idea to hold the line on tuition next year in exchange for restoration of the budget cuts, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, blasted the idea, accusing the regents of holding students hostage to get what they want.
H. Edward Flentje, a professor at Wichita State University who has served in various positions in state government over the past 40 years, said the friction between legislative leaders and higher education officials is a departure from the status quo in Kansas.
He said it is probably fueled by the trend of relying more on tuition than tax revenues to fund higher education.
"Essentially we've been shifting the responsibilities of funding state universities to students, their families and federal debt," he said.
And he said Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cuts are cutting into revenue available for higher education.
"The governor on one hand says 'I have to have tax cuts,' and on the other, 'I support higher education.' I'm sure he is genuine on both, but when the folks have to write the appropriations bills it puts them in a real squeeze," Flentje said.
Committees plan to tour campuses
Legislative budget committees are planning a tour this fall of regents universities, a community college and technical college, and recent comments indicate that key legislators are ready to rumble.
House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, recently said of Kansas University, "I want to know more about the infrastructure setup. There is a lot of all-funds dollars, a lot of outside money that comes in. Where is that going? Do we have to always build a building, you know, because somebody wants their name on it?"
Higher education officials say they feel they are being criticized for doing what legislators have told them to do: finding other sources of revenue through research grants and private donors.
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said such criticism is "hurtful" in fundraising efforts.
And she added that KU's budget growth from increased research and private giving "is not a bad thing; it's not a sign that we are being wasteful."
Gray-Little and Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz say sometimes they are asked why they can't use donated funds for operating expenses. They said that donated funds often are contributed for a specific purpose.
Regent Kenny Wilk, of Basehor, said donated money is "smart money," meaning that contributors have confidence in what the school is doing. Again, he said, that's a positive.
Concerning dealings with legislators, Brownback advised higher education officials to be as transparent as possible with them, listen to their concerns, provide comparative information on the cost of higher education in Kansas and other states, and let legislators know what their long-term plans are.
"I don't think the Legislature and some of the leadership knows" what those plans are, Brownback said.
Although Brownback signed into law the budget cuts, he said he supports restoring those cuts.
Brownback's budget director, Steve Anderson, who will be leaving the administration at the end of the month, framed the issue of legislative-higher education fighting in terms of Brownback's ratcheting down income tax rates with an eye toward eventual elimination of the state income tax.
"If we are going to proceed down this road and get to where the governor would like to be, which is zero individual income tax, then there is going to have to be belt-tightening. Now does belt-tightening mean we have what was pretty well a bloodbath this last year in the House? I don't believe that is the case," he said.