A recent Journal-World story recapping the failure of a funding proposal for a new building at the Kansas University Medical Center reveals significant room for improvement in how the university and state legislators communicate with one another.
In this year’s budget, KU sought approval for $30 million in bonds over a 10-year period to fund a new health education building at KUMC. KU also asked the state to release $25 million in FICA funds that was returned from the federal government. Together, the funds would have provided a good start on a facility that was estimated to cost about $75 million.
Gov. Sam Brownback whittled the request to $10 million over two years with $35 million in bonds, still a respectable investment in a needed facility. Unfortunately, legislators didn’t go along with that plan. The final budget approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor included only $1 million for the project, barely enough to allow some site evaluation.
KU officials had cited three major justifications for funding the new building. First, Kansas needs more doctors; legislators have acknowledged this fact and ordered KUMC to increase medical school enrollments (although funding cuts to the medical center seem contrary to that priority). Second, the current medical building, opened in 1976, is outdated. It is designed to accommodate large lectures, not the small group learning environment required to teach modern techniques. The third reason goes back to the first. Without upgrades, it’s difficult for KUMC to compete for students with schools in surrounding states that are opening new state-of-the-art facilities.
On top of that, the current building is in need of millions of dollars in repairs, which wouldn’t be a wise investment.
These reasons seem like enough to please even budget-minded state legislators, but that wasn’t the case. Asked about the issue, Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, placed the blame for the funding decision squarely on KU and the Kansas Board of Regents. It seems that Arpke, who chaired the Senate subcommittee where the KUMC cuts originated, went to the regents website and found some reports that he interpreted to indicate that KUMC wasn’t fully utilizing its existing lab and classroom space.
According to regents officials, data from KUMC largely was unavailable on reports showing how many hours per week a classroom was used because of differences between the medical center and other regents universities that are dominated by undergraduates. Officials are working on improving that reporting.
So a faulty assumption may have been the primary impetus behind a move to eliminate funding for an important medical education facility. The misperception might have been avoided if KU officials had done a better job of informing state legislators — or if Arpke or others had asked some questions about the figures they were seeing rather than jumping to an off-base conclusion.
It’s the job of KU officials to make sure legislators understand the reasons for their requests, and those officials are working on better ways to accomplish that goal. By the same token, it is the responsibility of legislators to make sure they have all the pertinent information before making their decision. That includes visiting state facilities like KUMC where they can gain first-hand perspective on various budget needs.
Funding an important state asset like KUMC must be a cooperative endeavor. That requires a concerted effort by both KU officials and state legislators to communicate with one another and make sure decisions are based on a common set of facts.