By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Kansas is at a crossroads, says Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott.
“The question is: Are we going to see higher education as an investment in the future or a drain on the resources of the state of Kansas?” he said.
Scott, speaking to faculty and staff members in a campus forum last week, said decisions the Legislature makes about higher education in the last days of its session, which resumes May 8, will be critical.
Shawn Naccarato, PSU’s director of community and governmental relations, said higher education is caught up in a political battle that boils down to whether to extend the life of a statewide sales tax increase in order to stave off cutbacks.
“We have become a pawn in a game of high-stakes poker,” Naccarato said.
The Legislature approved the sales tax increase in 2010 as the state faced a revenue crisis. It was to have been a temporary, three-year hike in the state sales tax to 6.3 percent from 5.3 percent. The tax originally was set to decrease on July 1 to 5.7 percent. Keeping the rate at 6.3 percent would generate about $258 million during the next fiscal year, according to state projections.
Under Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal, total spending on higher education would remain about $2.5 billion for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Senate budget calls for a 2 percent cut in funding for higher education, and the House budget calls for a 4 percent cut.
Brownback proposes canceling the decrease in the sales tax scheduled for July and retaining the 6.3 percent rate.
The Senate has backed Brownback’s sales tax measure and his proposals for a second round of individual income tax cuts. The House approved a plan to let the sales tax drop as planned, with far less aggressive income tax cuts. Legislators must resolve those differences to pass a tax bill after their spring break ends.
Naccarato said that under the House’s plan, cuts to higher education — which includes community colleges and technical colleges — would be $76.5 million.
Brownback was on campus last week, the fourth stop in a tour of schools to campaign for keeping funding at current levels. During his visit, Brownback said cutting higher education funding now would “be a real momentum killer.”
State Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, who was elected in November, said he voted against the Senate’s proposed budget because it “didn’t treat higher education and K-12 education fairly.”
“Higher ed suffered cuts a few years ago, and I think they’ve suffered enough,” he said. “I think they need to restore the cuts. I think the good news is, the governor doesn’t want to see cuts either. So I think that it’s likely — there’s no way to know — but it’s likely he’ll be waiting with his veto pen if we pass through cuts to higher ed.”
As for the six-tenths of 1 percent sales tax difference that is at issue, “If you want to leave K-12 education and higher ed untouched — and I do — it’s going to take the whole 0.6 for it to stay on,” LaTurner said. “The House hasn’t been willing to do that. The debate, I think, will be about the tax plan, and not the budget.”
LaTurner, who graduated from PSU in 2011, was a student during a round of tuition hikes that followed a cut in higher education funding in 2008 after the economy tanked.
“I saw some huge tuition hikes in my time there; I hated to see them,” he said.
By comparison, state Rep. Bob Grant, D-Frontenac, who just began his 20th year in the Legislature, said he made a promise to his constituents when the sales tax increase passed to not retain it beyond three years, and he’s sticking to that.
“My thing is, I made a promise to my constituents,” Grant said.
Other Democratic legislators have expressed frustration because they think the debate about higher education spending shifts attention away from the state’s self-inflicted budget problems. Supporters expected last year’s income tax cuts to stimulate the economy, but the reductions have — as Brownback concedes — left the state needing to backfill its budget to avoid significant cuts to core programs.
“The governor’s failed experiment with Kansas — it ain’t working, so let’s do something else,” Grant said.
Brownback said last week at PSU that if the sales tax is extended, “We can fund this. We can move this on forward.
“We can do this. We can have a competitive tax structure and fund our core competencies, our core needs, one of them being higher education.”
PSU administrators have said it’s not yet known how a 2 percent or 4 percent cut would affect tuition.
PSU art major Catherine Jepson, a sophomore from Harveyville, said she was frustrated to learn that higher education funding cuts are being discussed, because she worries that might translate into tuition hikes.
“It’s ridiculous. Education is a primary thing in our nation’s future, and it ought to be a priority for funding,” she said. “I think PSU is pretty inexpensive compared to a lot of Kansas schools. I definitely get a good value for my dollar. But if cuts mean higher tuition, that’s going to be frustrating for me, especially as an art major, because I already have a lot of add-on costs for supplies for studio classes.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.