Kansas Higher Education Funding Turns Contentious

In Kansas’s last legislative session, the fight over higher education funding was one of the most bruising, and it doesn’t seem to be over yet, as alarms are being raised over the diminished role of the Kansas Bioscience Authority (KBA) in relation to higher education funding cuts.

Conservatives cut state higher education funding by approximately $34 million. Additionally, they have given every indication they believe higher education could absorb more cuts. Meanwhile, the number one priority of post-secondary institutions and the Kansas Board of Regents is making restoration to the budget.

“Education is the largest economic tool that we have in this state,” said state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence.

Last year when the session ended, Kansas University received a $13.5 million cut, which fell particularly hard on the KU Medical Center. However, KU wants the Legislature to approve funding for a $75 million health education building and funds to expand the KU School of Medicine-Wichita program, in addition to trying to restore the cuts. KU says the state’s physician needs will be met by this.

Trying to restore the cuts has been discussed by Gov. Sam Brownback, but legislative leaders haven’t taken up the charge.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said of higher education funding, “Like last year, it will go through the appropriations process.” Merrick said he read a national report that said universities were cutting back on administrative expenses. “I think some of the universities in the state ought to be doing that,” he said.

To him, there is no government function or business “that can’t stand to be cut”.

Concerns about cuts to the Kansas Bioscience Authority have also been voiced by legislators. Kansas had a national reputation of growing the bioscience industry in recent years.

“We have done a 180-degree turn,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who is running for governor. “This is a mistake that has been made and needs to be undone in the future.”

As Scott Rothschild of Lawrence Journal-World reports, established in 2004, KBA was charged with investing tax funds to help grow the bioscience sector in Kansas. For some years, it had been operating on a budget of more than $35 million per year. However, falling to about $4 million this year, state funding support has been cut significiantly the past several years.

A high-powered struggle ensued between Brownback and the KBA board in 2011 and 2012. Under former CEO Tom Thornton, who resigned in 2011 for a job in Ohio, Brownback and other conservative Republicans questioned management and investments. Brownback was accused by Democrats and some moderate Republicans of a power grab in trying to take over the KBA, an allegation he denied.

01 15, 2014
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