By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World
VALLEY FALLS, KAN. — The Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday discussed the possibility of keeping tuition flat next year if the Legislature restores $36 million in higher education funding cut during the 2013 session.
Republican legislative leaders quickly responded that the regents are looking for scapegoats, and Gov. Sam Brownback, who opposed the deep cuts but signed them into law, suggested more conversation on the entire higher education funding issue.
"It's disappointing that the Regents are openly using students as hostages to unnecessarily extract money from taxpayers," said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, agreed. "Positioning Kansas students and families as bargaining chips in a budget debate is the wrong tactic," Wagle said. "During an economic downturn that has slaughtered family budgets, they (regents schools) have dramatically expanded administration and salaries with little justification."
Earlier, several regents members said they thought it was a fair proposal.
"I think it would be a powerful message," said Regent Vice Chairman Kenny Wilk, of Basehor.
During its annual retreat, the board said its top priority for the 2014 legislative session will be for the Legislature to restore the cuts made this year. If those cuts are restored, Wilk's proposal would hold tuition to current levels.
Regent Chairman Fred Logan said that would be the first time in 30 years that the regents didn't approve an annual tuition increase.
"If we don't get the restoration (of funds), all bets are off on tuition," Logan said.
A majority of the 9-member board said they agreed with the proposal.
But Regent Tim Emert, of Independence, said he would oppose it, saying it wouldn't be fair to the universities.
The regents said it would study the flat-tuition proposal further before making a final decision next month on whether to recommend it to Gov. Sam Brownback as he puts together his state budget proposal.
During the recently concluded legislative session, Republicans in the Legislature approved and Brownback signed into law cuts to higher education, making Kansas one of the few states in the nation to reduce funding to post-secondary institutions.
The cuts totaled $8.3 million to the KU Medical Center over two years and $5.3 million to the Lawrence and Edwards campuses. The Legislature also rejected a proposal aimed at starting construction of a $75 million medical educational training facility at KU Medical Center.
The regents approved tuition and fee increases at all public universities, including 4.4 percent at the KU Lawrence campus, and 7.6 percent at KU Medical Center for Kansas residents. The board said part of the increases were due to the state budget cuts.
On Wednesday, much of the board's discussion dealt with how to win over conservative Republicans who dominate the Legislature.
Brownback attended the end of the meeting and urged the regents and university leaders to be open with legislators and to let them know what their aspirations are for each school.
"We need to talk more," Brownback said. He reiterated that he would support the effort to restore the cuts, but he said he hadn't analyzed yet the idea of keeping tuition flat in return for restoration of the cuts.
In a morning session, Brownback's budget director Steve Anderson urged the regents to open up lines of communication with legislative leaders. Both Wagle and Merrick are considered conservatives.
"A conservative Legislature can be communicated with and can be a supporter of higher education," Anderson said.
But Emert, a former Senate majority leader, said some legislators believe they "were sent by God to cut budgets and we are an easy target."
He added that higher education officials tried hard during the last session to explain budget issues with certain legislators. "They smile and say everything is wonderful and then stab you in the back," Emert said.
Wilk, also a former legislator, said he was troubled to hear some legislators argue that because schools such as KU, were exceeding goals in raising private funds then that was a reason to cut state funding.
Wilk argued that philanthropic funding "is a good thing" and shows that donors believe the schools are performing well.
Logan described as "ignorant" some comments he has read of legislators who were critical of universities raising outside funds. He later declined to specify who he was talking about.
Anderson said higher education officials need to show legislators what the state is getting for the taxpayer investment in the schools. And, he said, a popular belief among conservatives is that the more money spent on public education, the more that hurts private colleges.
In a statement on the tuition proposal, Merrick and Wagle slammed regents institutions for tuition increases over the past several years that they said exceeded the rate of inflation. Merrick also said universities started last year with $107.9 million of prior years' tuition in the form of unencumbered cash balances.
"Speaker Merrick and I have opened the door for extensive budget negotiations. We expect answers and we expect results," said Wagle. "The Kansas Legislature will not be the scapegoats for a failure to justify exorbitant tuition increases across the state and expanding student debt."