Topeka In the middle of a crucial fight in the Legislature over proposed budget cuts to higher education, Kansas University officials have changed their strategy in the Statehouse—and the lobbyist leading it.
Last week, Kathy Damron was reassigned from her work lobbying legislators on behalf of KU. Instead, she will focus on outreach "with key stakeholders and community leaders across Kansas on behalf of the university," said Tim Caboni, KU's vice chancellor for public affairs. He said this was part of KU's effort to deepen relationships throughout the state. He said Damron's efforts "on our behalf have resulted in tremendous gains for the university."
"It's something that will be a good change for the university and me personally," said Damron, a veteran lobbyist and campaign consultant, who will now have the title of KU's director of state affairs.
KU recently hired Riley Scott to join Damron and Mandy Miller, who also works for Damron's consulting firm, Strategic Communications of Kansas, to lobby for KU. Scott had worked for Brownback when he was in Congress, and was deputy chief of staff and state director for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. He is also the son-in-law of Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
Caboni said Scott will continue to lobby for KU.
The change came suddenly amid negotiations between the House, Senate and Gov. Sam Brownback, in which higher education funding is one of the major sticking points.
The House has proposed a 4 percent across-the-board cut for each of the next two years, while the Senate countered with a 1 percent cut in each of the next two years.
In addition to the proposed across-the-board cuts, the House plan diverts millions of dollars in lapsed funds from universities. The total cuts to universities would be $42.1 million, or 7.4 percent, according to figures provided by the Kansas Board of Regents. KU and the KU Medical Center would take a combined hit of nearly $20 million.
KU officials have said the proposed House cuts would be devastating and Brownback has opposed cuts to higher education.
During the session, conservative Republicans in the House and Senate have said higher education could absorb cuts. KU has been a specific target on occasion.
Early this year, conservatives removed Brownback's funding plan of $10 million over two years to help start construction of a health education building at KU Medical Center.
At the time, state Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, said KU had been fiscally irresponsible and recommended a full legislative audit of costs at the school. And House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, has said higher education could take a 4 percent cut without getting hurt.
Caboni said KU spent $205,000 lobbying the Legislature in fiscal year 2013. That included $195,000 to Damron's company, Strategic Communications of Kansas, and $10,000 to Scott Consulting.
He said Damron's pay for being director of state affairs has yet to be determined.
Damron started lobbying for KU in 2005 and has helped guide through the Legislature numerous initiatives including expansion of the School of Pharmacy, increasing the number of engineering graduates, the annual $5 million appropriation for the KU Cancer Center, and many others.
"The record of success we've had is a reflection of the hard work and talents of many people at KU, along with governors and legislators who were strong partners, interested in seeing our state's flagship flourish," Damron said.