Kan. lawmakers touring higher education campuses
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Coming off a divisive budget debate this spring, Kansas legislators and higher education officials hope fact-finding visits to campuses this month by lawmakers will lessen tensions, but the groups have different goals ahead of the tour.
The Republican-controlled Legislature reduced funding for universities, community colleges and technical colleges by 3 percent overall for the fiscal year that began in July and kept it at about that level for the next fiscal year. When the Board of Regents imposed tuition increases for the fall, it pointedly calculated how much less the hikes would have been with no cuts.
Higher education officials said the tour starting Tuesday allows them to educate legislators about campus needs, showcase strong programs and demonstrate efficient operations.
"I'm hopeful that the tour will help them understand the good management decisions that are being made," Fort Hays State University President Ed Hammond said during an interview.
The conservative Republicans who control both legislative chambers want to build relationships as well. But they've also committed the state to cutting personal income taxes, believing it will stimulate economic growth, and are looking for information that helps them rein in spending.
"Maybe this will give us a dialogue between the Legislature and the presidents and the faculty," said Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Coldwater Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. "We're definitely going in a different direction than we have in the past."
House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committee members leave the statehouse early Tuesday for trips to the Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka and Emporia State University. They'll tour another eight campuses over five additional days, ending Oct. 30.
Lawmakers submitted dozens of detailed questions to higher education officials about universities' budgeting ahead of the tour, and they've received more than 200 pages of answers. But in the past, tours of campuses, prisons and state hospitals have allowed legislators to judge conditions for themselves and talk to workers, inmates and patients.
"Legislators will undoubtedly learn something about the university system they didn't know, and the folks on the campuses will have a better understanding of what the legislators are looking for," said Board of Regents member Ed McKechnie, a southeast Kansas railroad executive who served 10 years in the Kansas House as a Democrat.
In cutting higher education funding, Republican legislators defied GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who'd pushed them to preserve flat funding. Lawmakers' decisions cost the campuses $46 million in state funds over two years.
Total state funding for the higher education system will be about $751 million for the current and next fiscal years. That's a drop of more than $100 million -- nearly 12 percent -- from the high-water mark of nearly $853 million set by legislators in 2008, before the economic turmoil of the Great Recession forced state officials to cut spending.
And tuition is climbing. The standard rate for a full-time undergraduate student from Kansas at the University of Kansas is nearly 36 percent higher than it was five years ago, and tuition for the same type of student has jumped nearly 32 percent at Kansas State University during the same period.
Regents have said they've been forced into imposing larger tuition increases than they've wanted to help fill gaps in state funding. In turn, some conservative legislators have suggested that the regents are too quick to hike tuition when it's possible they could find efficiencies.
"I think there was frustration in both directions," said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican who serves on the Ways and Means Committee and as Education Committee chairman. "We have to have -- develop -- a common vision of what it means to be educated in the state of Kansas."
Abrams said he's hoping for "communication in both directions." He said he and other legislators see spurring economic growth -- a key rationale for the income tax cuts likely to keep budgets tight in the short-term -- as crucial.
"Is it of any value to have an education, a degree for a degree's sake, without the job to be able to sustain some kind of a lifestyle, a middle-class lifestyle? My answer is no," Abrams said.
Meanwhile, higher education officials are hoping legislators learn about the schools and the difficulties in managing them.
For example, some conservative legislators have pointed to the tens of millions of dollars in private funds the universities raise each year in questioning whether the budget situation on campuses is dire.
But University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little noted that private contributions typically come with restrictions from donors, so that funds for scholarships can't be used to cover energy costs, just as legislators are prohibited by law from using campaign contributions to pay personal expenses.
"Our goal will be that the members of the Legislature end up with a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of university finances," she said.
Kansas Board of Regents: http://www.kansasregents.org/
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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