Thursday, May 16, 2013

Higher education funding back at the forefront; Republican leaders still negotiating budget and taxes

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Unable to agree on tax shifts, conservative Republicans said Thursday they will now focus on putting a state budget plan together, which places funding of higher education front and center again.

That was the takeaway from a rare Senate GOP caucus/informational meeting that was also open to House Republicans, media, lobbyists and Democrats.

"We have come a long way, and we are very close," Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said.

More than a week into the wrap-up session, conservatives in charge of the Legislature, along with Gov. Sam Brownback, have failed to agree on a tax plan and budget.

After a few days of sniping between House and Senate leaders, the Republicans agreed to a meeting that lasted about an hour and focused on revenue assumptions and political perceptions.

Income tax cuts signed into law last year by Brownback have produced a budget crunch, and Brownback and his allies in the Senate have called on maintaining the state sales tax at 6.3 percent to balance the budget and to provide for future income tax cuts.

Under current law, the sales tax is supposed to decrease to 5.7 percent on July 1.

But House leaders want to let the higher sales tax expire. On Wednesday, they offered a plan that would drop the sales tax to 6 percent on July 1 and phase in additional income tax cuts over four years.

It also would reduce the standard deduction for head of household to $5,000 from $9,000, and the married-filing-jointly deduction to $6,500 from $9,000.

House and Senate leaders say that phasing out the income tax will increase economic growth. Democrats have said increasing the sales tax to replace the income tax will create more budget problems and benefit mostly the wealthy.

The Kansas Democratic Party said the proposal would increase sales tax over four years by $745 million and eliminate $1.35 billion in middle-class tax deductions.

But now that Republican attention has returned to budget negotiations, higher education funding will be aired out.

The House has approved a budget that includes a 4 percent across the board cut to higher education, while the Senate has adopted a 2 percent cut.

The House plan also includes a sweep of funds from vacant positions. In total, Kansas University is looking at a $20 million cut under the House plan.

KU officials have repeatedly said such a cut would have a devastating impact and, among other things, could put the KU Cancer Center's National Cancer Institute designation at risk.

Last year, KU's Cancer Center won NCI designation after several years of effort. The designation will open up more research and clinical trials, but officials said the proposed cuts could make it difficult to renew the designation.

KU has released a list of cuts that would have to be enacted if the House budget gained approval. They include:
  • Reducing by 36 the number of medical students KU admits each year. Three-quarters of the reduction would be in Wichita.
  • Closing the School of Medicine-Salina.
  • Cutting by 50 the number of nursing students admitted and by 30 the available medical resident positions.
  • Eliminating 38 faculty positions on the Lawrence campus. KU said that could make the school a "farm team" for universities in other states.
  • Risking the loss of membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.