Regents make restoring cuts top priority for next year

? The Kansas Board of Regents said Thursday that its top budget priority for the next legislative session will be to restore the $30.7 million that Gov. Sam Brownback cut out of university budgets this year, even though Brownback is asking all state agencies, including universities, to study the prospect of additional cuts.

The Regents’ decision came at the end of a three-day meeting in Wichita during which each of the state’s six universities offered wish lists for projects they would like to have funded.

“We are going to include those (other projects), but as narrative, just to be sure to communicate that we have those priorities, but our number-one priority is to restore the cuts and the stability to higher education,” Regents President and CEO Blake Flanders said.

At the end of the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers passed a final budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, knowing that the state likely would not have enough money to completely fund it.

That meant Brownback had to order allotment cuts at the same time he signed the budget bill into law. Those cuts totaled $97 million, or about 4 percent to all state agencies except public safety services and K-12 education.

For state universities, though, the cuts were not distributed evenly. Instead of reducing each university’s state funding by 4 percent, the cuts were proportionate to each school’s “all funds” budget, which meant larger research universities like the University of Kansas and Kansas State University took cuts of about 5.1 percent of their state aid.

That meant roughly $7 million for the KU campus in Lawrence and about $5.1 million for K-State.

KU officials are expected to announce soon how they intend to apply this year’s $7 million cut.

The Board of Regents plans to finalize its budget request for the next two fiscal years during its next monthly meeting in September. Once approved, it will be submitted to Brownback’s budget office for review. Brownback then will decide what items to include in the budget he submits to the Legislature in January.

The governor’s office, however, is now asking agencies to submit contingency plans for a possible 5 percent reduction next year, in the event that the next revenue forecast in November comes in lower than the current forecast.

When lawmakers return to Topeka in January, they will be expected to craft a two-year budget for the fiscal years ending in June 2018 and 2019.

Most universities came to the Board of Regents retreat in Wichita this week with modest lists of enhancements they would like to see included in that budget.

KU said it hoped to get $5 million over two years to expand its medical residency program at the KU Medical Center’s Wichita campus, and $1.3 million for a program to help at-risk, nontraditional students succeed in their freshman year.

Regents did not specifically address any nonbudget legislative items that they want to address next year. But it’s widely expected that one of those will be to seek legislative approval to merge Wichita State University and Wichita Area Technical College into a single entity.

The two schools proposed that during the 2016 session, but the bill did not come to the floor of either chamber.

In the coming months, Board of Regents members said they plan to make policy decisions on several other topics that may also be of interest to legislators.

One item discussed during the retreat concerns board policies on the financing and construction of new facilities through public-private partnerships like the one KU used to raise $350 million for its Central District project on the Lawrence campus.

Some lawmakers were infuriated when they learned KU had used a Wisconsin public finance agency to issue bonds for that project, even after they had told KU officials earlier that they had reservations about the financing arrangement.

Regents also said they will continue reviewing policies about how universities should comply with federal Title IX rules that prohibit gender-based discrimination on college campuses, and how lawsuits alleging Title IX violations should be defended.