Editorial: Political priorities

State legislators have gone off on another tangent with an unfunded mandate for the Kansas University Medical Center.

The capricious Kansas Legislature has struck again with a bill ordering the Kansas University Medical Center to create a new adult stem cell research center.

The center was the brain child of legislators, who even gave it a name: the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center. It wasn’t part of any KU request, but legislators think such a center would be good for the state. However, the center is not so important to them that they are willing to allocate any state funds to get it started.

A fiscal note on the bill estimates it will cost about $1.1 million to renovate a lab and hire the initial staff and about $750,000 annually to operate the center. Legislators allocated no funding to cover those costs, indicating that KU could solicit grants, gifts and contributions to fund the center.

Legislators seem to be blissfully unaware that KU already is actively tapping every charitable source it can come up with for a variety of existing efforts, especially its newly designated National Cancer Institute. The search for private funds is certain to become even more intense if budget cuts proposed by legislators are successful. The Senate has approved a 2 percent budget cut for KU and the Medical Center, but, in conference committee discussions, the House is sticking to a 4 percent across-the-board budget cut for all state universities, as well as the Med Center.

Supporters say it’s entirely appropriate for legislators to mandate the stem cell center — even without funding. Because of “political questions,” said Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, “The stem cell center would possibly never be built if not for the direction of the state.”

Political priorities apparently are trumping practicality in this instance. There is no way the KU Medical Center can absorb a 2 percent or 4 percent budget cut and create a new stem cell research center without shortchanging other important goals — including some specifically mandated by legislators, such as the cancer center and graduating more doctors and nurses to serve the state.

The bill creating the center has passed both the House and Senate, and although a House amendment will spur some further discussion, it seems likely the measure is headed to Gov. Brownback, who has said he supports the plan.

So much for KU trying to plan or focus its efforts on key priorities. Legislators have some priorities of their own.