Kansas legislators reach budget deal that spares KU, KSU from cuts

? Kansas House and Senate budget negotiators reached agreement Wednesday on a bill that would spare Kansas University and Kansas State University from significant cuts that had been proposed earlier.

In exchange, though, Regents universities would not be allowed to increase tuition for the next two years. And 60 percent of state-funded student financial aid would be reserved for students attending private, independent colleges and universities.

KU spokesman Tim Caboni, who sat through the conference committee talks, called it a good deal.

“Flat tuition for students is a win for the parents and families in Kansas,” Caboni said. “The Legislature agreed to work with us to keep tuition flat for our students and at the same time not target us with cuts. For this point in the process, it’s a very good outcome.”

The House and Senate could vote on the package as early as Thursday.

The original Senate plan cut $9.4 million from KU’s general operating budget over the next two years, and it cut $2.1 million from K-State’s budget in the upcoming fiscal year. It also called for reserving 75 percent of the state-funded “comprehensive grants” for students who attend private colleges and universities in Kansas.

But after several rounds of talks, the Senate agreed to drop the cuts to KU and K-State and to accept a 60-40 percent split in financial aid between private and public universities.

In exchange, the Senate asked for a two-year freeze on tuition at the Regents universities.

The budget deal was struck just as state universities and the Kansas Board of Regents were beginning to discuss tuition rates for the upcoming academic year.

Caboni said that even though KU would not take a budget cut under the plan, the overall flat funding compared with last year combined with a tuition freeze amounts to a cut. But he gave assurances that KU would not try to raise student fees and other campus charges, which are not part of the proposed freeze, as a way to make up the difference.

“We won’t shift expenses to fees. That violates the spirit of this,” Caboni said. “I think what we’ll have to have conversations around is, if we’re going to hold tuition flat, and if there are extras we want to do as an institution, how do we generate the resources to do that. Is it through public-private partnerships? Is it through fundraising? It won’t be through tuition.”

Another part of the deal is that the House agreed to put funding for the Kansas judiciary in a separate bill, something the Senate has wanted since the beginning of the budget process.

The full House has not yet voted on a budget bill, in part because Republican leaders were not sure they could muster the 63 votes needed for passage. Some conservatives have wanted deeper cuts in state spending.

In addition, though, a full floor debate would allow for the possibility of amendments that could have included expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Overall, when the compromise bill is combined with the school funding bill passed earlier, and the judicial branch budget that will be done later, the combined budget package calls for spending about $6.3 billion from the state general fund for each of the next two years.

But even if that package passes both chambers, lawmakers will either need to find additional revenues to fund the budget or identify additional cuts when they return in late April to pass the final budget.

According to the most recent projections from the Legislature’s nonpartisan Research Department, the budget calls for spending $224 million more than the state expects to have available in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and $172.3 million more than the projected revenue for the following fiscal year.

Another variable hovering over the budget situation is the ongoing school finance lawsuit.

The school funding bill that Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law last week is now the subject of new litigation because it repeals the funding formula that had been in place since 1992 and replaces it for two years with a system of block grants. Plaintiffs in the ongoing school finance suit argue the change will leave the state’s 286 school districts unconstitutionally under-funded.

The next hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for May 7.