If Gov. Sam Brownback has his way, the flow of funds from the state to Kansas University will stay steady in 2013-14, with the addition of some support for a new health education building.
But with months remaining before a state budget is produced, KU officials are preparing for the worst, just in case.
KU leaders have passed word down that deans, chairs and others should form contingency plans for the event that state funding takes a tumble again, continuing a recent pattern. Officials say they’re not predicting that funding will decline. But as Brownback and state legislators hope that increased business activity in the coming years will fill in the state revenue gap caused by the dramatic tax cuts passed in 2012, KU is starting to ponder the tough decisions that could await if funding dries up further.
“Right now we don’t have any firm number to know what to plan for,” said Danny Anderson, KU’s dean of liberal arts and sciences. That means anyone budgeting for the next academic year at KU must consider a range of possibilities for what might happen when funding levels are set around May.
Brownback’s proposed budget would keep funding steady for KU and other state universities, while also providing $35 million in bonding authority and $10 million in state funds over two years for a new health education building at the KU Medical Center.
“Certainly we’re pleased with where the governor’s placed us,” said Tim Caboni, KU’s vice chancellor for public affairs. “But we also know that the Legislature has a lot of work to do between now and when we have a final budget that gets passed out.”
Officials will be forming budget plans based on Brownback’s proposal, Caboni and Anderson said, while also considering the possibility of worse outcomes.
Different people have different predictions about how the state’s financial situation will look in the coming years after last year’s tax cuts.
Martin Dickinson, a distinguished professor of law at KU who specializes in taxes, was the lead author on what he said is the most comprehensive study of the new legislation, published in the Kansas Law Review. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Research Department predicted that the tax cuts would reduce the state’s revenue by about $800 million — around 12 percent of the state’s budget — for each of the next five fiscal years, starting with the one beginning this July. But Brownback has said the cuts will encourage more business activity, offsetting the predicted shortfall.
“If the estimate is correct, and the good results of the bill are not as much as Gov. Brownback suggested, then obviously there are going to have to be some really substantial cuts that are made somewhere,” Dickinson said.
And what would happen if such cuts reached KU, just a few years after substantial cuts that happened in 2009 and 2010?
At the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, KU’s largest school, officials would try to keep cuts from affecting the research activity that’s important to the university’s status as part of the Association of American Universities, Anderson said. But because 94 percent of his $103 million budget is locked up in salaries, things could get tricky, he said.
“If we’re looking at reducing it further, I think we are asking ourselves questions about: What will the impact be on the stature of nationally ranked programs?” Anderson said. “What will the impact be as we’re trying to retain the best faculty in the college and at the university?”
He said he was considering what steps he’d have to take if, say, $3.5 million — about 3.4 percent — were lopped off of his budget for 2013-14.
Because of salary commitments, that could mean a reduction in faculty that would have little relation to where instructors and researchers are most needed. If a faculty member from a growing department happened to retire, the college might be unable to hire a replacement. Other departments, even if their number of students was decreasing, might be unaffected if no faculty left.
“We can’t make a change overnight,” Anderson said.
Anna Neill, chairwoman of KU’s English department, said her department had weathered previous cuts without too much effect on students’ learning opportunities. But that might not be the case if budgets are squeezed tighter.
Things in danger could include guest speakers, classroom technology and publishing opportunities for English students.
“Those are things that worry us a great deal,” Neill said.
Cuts could have ripple effects across the campus and state, Anderson said. If the size of the faculty in KU’s city and county management program — ranked No. 1 in the country — were to decrease, they may have less time to provide support for cities and counties in the state as they do now.
And cuts in the CLAS could affect state-supported missions to produce more engineers and pharmacists for the state, if they affected the quality of the basic science courses taken by students in the university’s professional schools.
“We are, as a university, a very interconnected organization, and if there is a reduction in funding, we will struggle to be able to find ways to fulfill all of those kinds of goals,” Anderson said.
KU’s projected level of state appropriations for this academic year, about $247 million, is below the level of funding it received for the 2005-06 year. And adjusted for inflation, state funding per student has fallen by more than a third since 1999-00.
“As you can imagine, that is a really heavy lift for any institution to absorb,” Caboni said.
In the fiscal year that ended last summer, state appropriations accounted for about 21 percent of KU's $1.11 billion in revenue. KU is also in the midst of an efficiency effort aimed at stretching its dollars further.
In messages to the Statehouse, Caboni said, KU officials emphasize the university’s importance to economic development, saying its research promotes innovation and its students pour into an educated workforce.
“Higher education is truly the seed corn for the state,” Caboni said, “and we certainly don’t want to eat our seed corn.”
If cuts do happen, they would not be spread evenly across the budget, Caboni said. The university would prioritize research and education.
And whatever happens, Neill said, her department will do what it can to avoid affecting the classroom. But whether that can happen for sure remains to be seen.
“First and foremost, we’re teachers,” Neill said, “and we care about the success of our students.”