Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Brownback concludes tour urging support of stable funding for higher education

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday concluded his statewide tour aimed at protecting higher education from budget cuts, but Democratic legislative leaders said the effort "rang hollow."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said, "You sort of now have the guy who started the fire, has finally decided to call the fire department."

As the Legislature reconvenes Wednesday for the wrapup session, Democrats contend higher education and other state services are facing precarious finances because Brownback signed into law mammoth income tax cuts last year.

On his tour of college campuses over the past couple of weeks, Brownback urged keeping higher education funding stable.

"I believe the state must live within its means and recognize there are difficult spending decisions we must make. This is why my administration has worked to reform state agencies so they are more efficient and effective,” Brownback said. “However, there are core responsibilities that we must protect. Higher education is one of them," he added.

But his conservative Republican colleagues say higher ed could absorb cuts. The House has approved a 4 percent cut to higher ed, and the Senate, a 2 percent cut.

To protect higher education and balance the budget, Brownback also wants to keep the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent. Under current law, the rate is scheduled to fall to 5.7 percent on July 1.

Senate Republicans have backed Brownback's plan, but House Republicans have balked.

Democrats, who helped approve the temporary sales tax increase in 2010, said they will not vote to extend it further, even if that means cuts to universities.

"A lot of the people in the university community at KU, sort of see this for what it is," said Davis. "We wouldn't be having this discussion if it wasn't for the income tax cuts." Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said Brownback's support of higher ed "rang hollow."

Last year, Brownback signed into law a package that lowered income tax rates and exempted the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from state income taxes. The package also did away with several rebates and credits designed to help low-income Kansans.

Brownback has said the plan will boost the economy, and he wants to eventually eliminate all individual state income taxes.