Regents, university officials fear budget cuts ahead

? University officials in Kansas and members of the Board of Regents are growing concerned that higher education may be on the chopping block next year as lawmakers try to deal with a projected $715 million revenue shortfall.

Although Gov. Sam Brownback won’t announce his budget proposal until the start of the 2015 session in January, university presidents told the Kansas Board of Regents Wednesday that they don’t even want to begin discussing tuition rates for next year until they get a better idea of what they can expect in the form of state support.

“We really don’t know where the state is yet, and therefore to look at tuition and fees outside of understanding our whole budget is something that is of great interest and some concern,” Wichita State University President John Bardo said.

Bardo is the current chairman of the Regents’ Council of Presidents, which met earlier in the day to prepare its report to the board.

During that meeting, he highlighted a recent article by the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute which suggested, among other things, that universities could spend down their cash reserves to make up for cuts in state funding and to pay for a one-time cut in tuition rates.

“That sounds terrific,” Bardo said. “The problem with that is that the state’s not replacing it with anything, and so if you spend it down and you take down tuition, then the question you have to ask at the end of the day is, ‘access to what?’ Access without quality is no bargain.”

“We all recognize the state is having financial issues. We get that,” Bardo said. “But at the same time, you don’t exacerbate those issues by creating an artificial problem.”

Meanwhile, some of the regents themselves expressed concern about a proposal some lawmakers are advocating called “performance based budgeting,” where each university’s funding would be tied to specific performance measures.

During the board’s annual retreat in August, several lawmakers asked the board to draw up a specific proposal for such a funding system, and a task force was formed to come up with a plan.

Regents President and CEO Andy Tompkins said that group has been developing a plan that assumes the performance-based money would be additional money on top of their base budgets, to be used as incentives for schools to achieve performance goals.

But in the wake of new revenue estimates showing that lawmakers will need to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending over the next two years, Regent Fred Logan, of Johnson County, said he was starting to have reservations about the idea.

“I think our task force here has done a really nice job with the mission they were given. I’m still not convinced the mission is the right one,” Logan said. “To me, the whole key is whether there will be some new funding devoted to this. … I’m not very interested in forwarding a proposal that forms a pretext for simply reallocating existing funding.”

Later in the meeting, as the board was voting to approve its list of policy initiatives it wants to push for in the Legislature, Logan added an item to oppose any changes in the way block grants are allocated among the universities.

For most state agencies, lawmakers approve detailed budgets that specify how much money is to be used for wages and salaries, purchasing supplies and other functions. But universities are funded with block grants — a pot of money set aside for the system as a whole, and divided among each institution based on its size and mission.

“The board doesn’t want to get into the business here of saying we’re going to take some existing funds from, let’s say, Pittsburg State University, and we’re going to give those to Emporia State University,” Logan said. “I would hate to ever see a move to cannibalize one another in higher education. It would be a total catastrophe.”