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State economy plays critical role in the future of FHSU

8/10/2014

1But a threat is lurking in the shadows. Just as the tones of sinister music alert us to impending danger in a horror movie, Kansans should be aware trouble is brewing for higher education.

The Kansas economy continues to struggle, and state financial support for the Kansas Board of Regents universities has not recovered from the national economic crash in the fall of 2008. It does not help the recovery from the Great Recession, if there really is a recovery, has been the slowest in modern times.

The financial situation for education in Kansas -- both K-12 and higher education -- further is exacerbated by large revenue shortfalls resulting from income tax reductions enacted by the Legislature, mostly in the 2012 session, and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback.

The political battle lines have been drawn. Gubernatorial hopeful Paul Davis and other Democrats charge the state is on the brink of disaster. They insist higher taxes must be restored so that state government can provide adequate education and other essential services. Their doomsday predictions are so strident that perhaps Kansas Democrats should change their mascot from a donkey to a chicken ... specifically, Chicken Little.

As could be expected, Brownback and other Republicans have a different take on the situation. When Brownback entered office in 2011, he saw a pattern of stagnation -- in both population and economic activity -- that predated the crash of 2008 by many years. He called his radical tax cuts a "grand experiment" to stimulate business and reverse those patterns of decline.

Considering the tax changes took effect in January 2013, any reasonable person would understand that less than two years is way too early to know whether Brownback's strategy will work. In the short term, though, the predictable result has indisputably been startling revenue shortfalls.

Who's right? Will the new tax strategy kick in and create a much brighter economic future for Kansas than would have been possible if we had just stayed on the same old course, or will these jarring revenue shortfalls continue to the detriment of Kansans who depend on the state for vital services? As with most debates, especially during political campaigns, the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Kansas voters will decide in November.

Regardless of who is in charge next January, Sam Brownback or Paul Davis, Kansans need to keep their eyes on education funding and let elected officials know they are watching. In the long term, nothing is more critical for the economic future of our state than education. It is the cornerstone of the economy. Business and industry rest on the foundation of education -- K-12 schools, technical colleges, trade schools, community colleges and universities.

Our elected officials do not have easy choices to make, but we, the citizens of Kansas, must make it clear that education should be a key component in their decisions.

Kent Steward is director of Fort Hays State University relations and a Hays City Commissioner.

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