When Gov. Sam Brownback submitted his two-year budget proposal earlier this year, he attempted to hold the line for higher education institutions in Kansas by keeping their spending flat.
Later in the legislative session, when it appeared income tax cuts would reduce revenue coming into the state, the governor promised to maintain funding for colleges and universities -- if he could get a sales tax increase.
By the time the budget was approved, the Legislature approved decreased income taxes and increased sales taxes and still proceeded to reduce the Kansas Board of Regents' funding for its 32 public institutions by some $48.7 million for 2014 and 2015. Lawmakers expressed concern about the operational efficiencies of universities and a reliance on annual tuition increases to fill budget gaps.
The chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, Tim Emert, responded by saying: "The budget passed by the Kansas Legislature that will soon go before Gov. Brownback includes cuts to higher education that are damaging and in direct conflict with the pro-growth strategies, ideas, and desires of the governor and the Kansas Board of Regents."
And then the Regents approved tuition hikes requested by the state universities, ranging from 3.4 percent at Fort Hays State University up to 8 percent at Wichita State University for undergraduate students. The collective $34 million extra the increases would produce would help offset state funding decreases, as well as give raises to faculty and staff.
"There isn't any question that the tuition increases are higher as a result of the cuts made by the Legislature," said Regent Fred Logan in June.
Now chairman of the Regents, Logan this past week asked the governor to restore all those cuts. Knowing the governor likely will seek amendments to the approved budget, the Regents board voted to request a reversal.
The Associated Press report then said the board has considered keeping future tuition rates flat if the funding was restored.
KBOR is not doing itself any favors by trying to have it both ways. If universities blame at least part of the tuition hikes on general fund cuts, there should be an offer to reduce tuition if the cuts are reversed.
Of course, it's likely a moot point. The current Legislature does not place high value on higher education's role in the Kansas economy and will not reverse the reductions.
University leaders will have time to convince state lawmakers otherwise in October when legislators visit campuses throughout the state. The message should steer clear of tuition rates, focusing instead on returns on investment. If elected leaders can be persuaded to think of Regents institutions as businesses, there's hope they would be treated that way.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry