Friday, March 14, 2014

Senate budget committee says ‘no’ to funding for new KU Med Center building

By JIM McCLEAN, KHI News Service

TOPEKA, KAN. — The chairman of the Kansas Senate’s budget writing committee today defended the panel’s recent decision to withhold state funding for a new classroom building at the University of Kansas Medical School.

Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he’s not convinced the university needs additional state funding to construct the building on its medical school campus in Kansas City, Kan.

Masterson said KU has the resources to complete the project if it’s the priority that university officials say that it is.

“KU’s dropped 8 percent almost 9 percent in its enrollment and we’re still giving them as much money as we’ve given them in the past,” Masterson said. “We’re just looking at what’s the proper allocation of the funds we have available.”

Earlier in the session, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said the university couldn’t move forward on the project unless lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback agreed to cover approximately $40 million of the $75 million cost.

“This would be a partnership between the state, the university and private donors to make this possible,” Gray-Little said.

University officials are requesting an ongoing annual appropriation of $1.4 million starting in 2015 to help retire construction bonds. The Ways and Means Committee gave the university permission to issue the bonds but the panel’s Republican majority declined to appropriate any money to help pay for them.

Sen. Laura Kelly, from Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said lawmakers should take seriously the warnings of university officials who have said the building is needed to maintain the medical school’s accreditation.

“I have a daughter who just graduated from KU Med and I can attest to the state of their facilities. They will not pass muster,” Kelly said. “Lots and lots of states have really upgraded their facilities to be able to teach students the way that medical students need to be taught now, which is much more hands on and a lot less lecture.”

The medical school has been put on notice that its facilities will be an issue in its next accreditation review, according to KU officials.

Masterson said he’s not convinced the accreditation issue turns on the question of state funding for the new classroom building.

“This body (Legislature) is not going to allow the school to become unaccredited,” he said.

The accreditation issue aside, university officials have said the new building also is needed to help address a doctor shortage in the state. The KU medical school, which trains approximately half the doctors that practice in Kansas, currently accepts 211 new students a year. The new building would increase enrollment by 50 starting in 2017.

In addition to the annual appropriation to help cover the cost of the bonds, the university is seeking the release of $25 million in disputed Social Security contributions that was recently returned to the state. The money was sent back after it was determined that the university made unnecessary contributions on behalf of medical school residents.

Masterson said the university has no claim on the money, which has been sitting in the state treasury since it was received last year.

“It was money that was appropriated by us that should have never been appropriated in the first place, it was a misspend,” he said.

Arguing that the disputed funds are “clearly the Med Center’s money,” Kelly said supporters of the building project will continue their attempts to add money to the budget in committee and on the Senate floor.

“I think there will be several attempts. Whether they will be successful, we’ll see,” she said.