Monday, October 21, 2013

Officials hoping for thaw in icy relations between higher education and Republican legislative leaders

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — Republican legislators who approved cuts to higher education and have warned that more cuts may be coming will start touring universities this week in preparation for the 2014 session.

Both sides — the legislative leadership and higher education officials — say they hope their somewhat icy relationship of late will thaw outside the pressure of a legislative session.

"I don't know how the visit will turn out, but I think it's an opportunity to share with each other our concerns," said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

"The legislators are concerned about the efficiency of tax dollars that are spent. They're concerned about quality outcomes, and the schools are concerned about the same thing, so hopefully the communication will bridge the gap that we have right now," Wagle said.

Wagle said she is eager to hear from the leaders of each institution "as to the direction that they are planning for the future and what their goals are for their students."

"We want to be good partners," said Kansas University spokesman Tim Caboni. "Any issue there is, in relation to challenges facing the state, our role with the governor and the Legislature is to figure out how we can be helpful," he said.

During the 2013 legislative session, Republicans approved $34.3 million in cuts to universities over two years. While most states were increasing funds to higher education as they arose from the recession, Kansas was one of the few going in the opposite direction.

In addition, Republican legislators also sidelined Kansas University Medical Center's top priority of building a new medical education building.

The cuts prompted some criticisms from the Kansas Board of Regents lobbed against legislators, and legislators returned fire.

Although Brownback, a conservative Republican, signed those cuts into law, he has said he will work to restore those cuts, a position that the regents has endorsed.

Starting Tuesday, members of the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees and legislative leaders will visit the six regents universities, a technology school and community college over a two-week period.

The schools have set up tours and presentations for the legislators, but Mary Jane Stankiewicz, a spokeswoman for the regents, said she has received strong direction from legislative staff that legislators want ample time to ask questions.

As part of the preparation for the meetings, legislators submitted to the schools dozens of written questions dealing with spending, fund-raising, general operations and academics. The schools responded, compiling lengthy answer booklets. The KU and KU Medical Center response alone totaled a combined 52 pages. (Go to to see the documents.)

Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Fred Logan Jr., of Leawood, said the state of higher education in Kansas is excellent. He cited recent enrollment figures that showed enrollment is up at five of the six regents universities, and while KU's overall enrollment fell slightly, freshmen enrollment increased by 6.1 percent.

"It seems to me that Kansans have given a huge vote of confidence to the six universities," Logan said.

But Regent Tim Emert of Independence, a former Senate Republican leader, said he believes conservatives in the Legislature will criticize higher education regardless of what they see or hear on the tour.

Emert said the lengthy responses from the universities to the legislators' questions will probably be used against the schools. "There is so much information, they will find three things that are kind of bad and harp on them," he said.

Wagle said she believes the Legislature and higher education officials want the same things. "The Legislature wants a quality higher education system. We want an affordable system. We want to keep our kids in Kansas. We want them to have jobs when they graduate, so ultimately I think we'll find we have the same goals. Then the question becomes how do you finance that, and how much state money does that really take."

Here is the tour schedule:

Tuesday — Washburn Institute of Technology, Topeka; Emporia State University.

Wednesday — Wichita State University.

Thursday — Pittsburg State University and Fort Scott Community College.

Mon. Oct. 28 — Fort Hays State University.

Tue. Oct. 29 — Kansas State University.

Wed. Oct. 30 — Kansas University Medical Center and KU-Lawrence.