With state lawmakers on break until May 8, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding what next year's budget will look like. Given the massive tax reductions put in place last year, it won't be pretty for any entity supported by state funding.
Institutions of higher learning are feeling particularly singled out. According to a flyer from Fort Hays State University, higher education cuts account for 40 percent of all the cuts proposed for 2014 and 2015.
"Did we make somebody mad?" asked Kansas Board of Regents member Christine Downey-Schmidt. "Why are we such a target?"
Board member Robba Moran, formerly from Hays, lamented: "I know there are states that are increasing their higher education budgets right now. I'm having a really hard time with a supposed 'pro-growth' philosophy."
That pro-growth approach being pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback and fellow conservatives in the Legislature is code for starving state government and hoping for an economic miracle. For colleges and universities attempting to prepare the next generation of skilled employees and leaders, the decreases could result in larger class sizes, fewer offerings and higher tuition. That hardly appears to be a successful formula for recruiting or retaining students, let alone preventing them from fleeing immediately upon graduation.
Still, legislators are having trouble making ends meet with the loss of revenue caused by last year's tax cuts. Still to be resolved in the Statehouse is the upcoming budget, which has at least three competing plans in play. The Senate version would cut higher education spending by 2 percent, which would result in $700,000 less for Fort Hays State. The House proposal cuts deeper, with FHSU receiving $2.5 million less. Only the governor's budget maintains higher education spending at current levels.
Naturally, that is the budget being endorsed by the Board of Regents and member institutions. FHSU President Edward Hammond is urging citizens to contact their lawmakers to adopt the governor's plan.
Unfortunately, the governor's plan merely transfers the cuts to other entities. It also requires a permanent extension of the existing higher sales tax rate to pay for it. Unless the Legislature decides otherwise, the 6.3 percent state sales tax rate is supposed to drop to 5.7 percent this summer. And the $300 million-plus that 0.6 percent generates is needed to plug holes in the "pro-growth" budget.
"I find it ironic that Gov. Brownback will be touring the state to gain support for his sales tax increase to avoid cuts to higher education when the problem is in his own back yard," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "Members of his political party oppose the sales tax increase and are the ones proposing these budget cuts."
Fort Hays State and others are trapped in a corner on this one. The lesser of three evils, from their perspective, is the governor's plan. Yet none of them are good for the state overall.
We find it difficult to side with President Hammond when the governor's plan is regressive, continues to favor the well-off, redirects or even eliminates critical funding for social services, and almost boastfully turns the state's back on those who need the most help. About the only redeeming feature it has is maintaining higher ed funding -- for now.
Perhaps our elected leaders believe FHSU can continue doing more with less. It can't. Nor can the rest of the state.
The sooner we realize this fact, the sooner we can begin to dismantle last year's reckless attempts at tax reform.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry