Lawmakers unlikely to restore cuts to higher education

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? With a deal nearly in hand for balancing the state’s budget for the current fiscal year, House and Senate budget committees will focus their attention in the upcoming week on writing a so-called “mega” budget bill for funding state agencies for the next two fiscal years.

Heading into that process, lawmakers have all but decided two key issues: finding a way to restore the 4 percent cut Gov. Sam Brownback ordered for the state Medicaid program last year, and providing a significant increase in K-12 public school funding in response to a recent Kansas Supreme Court decision.

But one area of the budget that is unlikely to see any increase, or even a restoration of the cuts made last year, is higher education. In fact, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said Friday that so far, the colleges and universities themselves have not been strongly pushing to restore those cuts.

“Obviously the universities and the other Regents institutions would like to see a restoration of some of those cuts, but really I haven’t had in-depth conversations with any of the universities across the state advocating strongly for some of those to be put back in place,” Waymaster said.

Last year, lawmakers passed a budget bill that included cuts to higher education, knowing at the time that there wasn’t enough revenue to pay for even that pared-back budget.

When Gov. Sam Brownback signed that bill, he ordered another $92 million in what are called “allotment” cuts statewide, including higher education, Medicaid and most other state agencies.

For the University of Kansas, the combined impact of those measures were a loss of $7.6 million for the Lawrence campus, compared to the previous year’s funding, and $4 million for the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., according to figures from the Kansas Board of Regents.

Last week, the Kansas Senate passed a bill that would fund the restoration of Medicaid cuts by raising the privilege fee that certain kinds of health insurance companies pay as a condition for doing business in Kansas. A similar bill has already passed out of a House committee and is awaiting action by the full House.

Meanwhile, a special committee in the House is expected in the coming week to start cobbling together its proposal for a new school funding plan to replace the block grant formula that has been in place for the last two years.

It’s also expected that at some point in the session, lawmakers will pass two significant tax measures: one of around $1 billion or more over two years, primarily through income taxes, just to fund state operations at their current level; and a separate tax bill to provide whatever is needed to pay for the increase in K-12 education funding.

Senate leaders have said they will wait for the House to take action on school funding first. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, only recently appointed a special committee to focus on school funding.

But in work so far on the “mega” budget bill for the next two years, neither the governor nor any of the subcommittees that deal with higher education budgets have recommended restoring any of the cuts imposed this year.

During his weekly news conference Friday, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he hoped budget writers would consider restoring the higher education cuts, but he offered no specific reason to think that might happen.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who serves on the House budget panel, said there remains a slim chance that there could be at least a partial restoration of the cuts. That’s because as they’ve gone through each of the governor’s recommendations, the committee has pulled out any enhancement requests and set them aside for consideration later.

Out of that, she said, some additional money for higher education might be found. But she also said there are plenty of other state programs, including social services for the elderly, competing for that money.

“I’m not sure they would get back all of the money that was cut because you have to think, where is the money,” she said. “We don’t know where the money is.”

Waymaster said even if the House and Senate can agree on a tax package that Brownback will sign — or one that has enough votes for a veto override — it will still be hard to find any money for spending increases in the first year of the two-year budget because it takes time for new tax policies to produce results.

“The tax policies are going to be difficult to put in place for us to reap the benefit of that in 2018,” he said.