Kansas lawmakers have put a cork in the first portion of this year's legislative session, adjourning for a month-long spring break. In the final stretch of this year's regular session, dozens of measures cleared legislative hurdles and made their way to the Governor's desk for enactment. Lawmakers will return May 8 for the "veto session" which will be an intense, focused couple of weeks. The major issues of the session -- our state's budget and the tax policy to fund it -- await lawmakers when they return.
For the University of Kansas, it has been a tumultuous session. Governor Brownback's budget recommendations started the session on a very high note, signaling his continued support for higher education. He asked lawmakers to fund higher education at current levels and recommended new investments at the University of Kansas Medical Center to expand our ability to train the state's healthcare workforce.
But the Governor's budget plan only works if legislators are willing to adjust last year's massive tax plan, which reduced income taxes at a highly aggressive rate and did not include adjustments in credits and exemptions to make the plan financially sound. The Governor asked lawmakers to fix that by retaining the current sales tax and identifying other "pay fors" to make the tax plan more financially sound. The Legislature has wrangled with various tax policies throughout the session. The Senate has adopted a proposal to retain the current sales tax and gradually eliminate other deductions. The House has also passed a tax proposal, but it did not contain the major revenue-raising component of retaining the current sales tax. Differences in those tax proposals are being negotiated by leaders in both chambers and agreement will be central to passage of this year's budget proposal.
Until a revenue package can be agreed to, budget discussions are really just "discussions." While the budget conference committee has reached tentative agreement on hundreds of items and billions of dollars, they cannot conclude their work without knowing how much revenue will be raised by a tax measure to fund next year's budget.
Cuts to higher education continue to pose a threat. As the various budget proposals worked their way through the legislative sausage grinder, cuts for higher education ranged from $20 million (original Senate budget) to just over $60 million (original House budget). Fortunately, as legislators gained a greater understanding of the dire consequences of cuts that deep, they have started to back away from those deep reductions. As the budget negotiations were concluding for first adjournment, House negotiators were suggesting the cuts earlier proposed for higher education instead be replaced by deeper transfers from the highway program to fill the shortfall in the state budget.
Legislators did adopt major changes to the state's concealed carry law through HB 2052, which makes it possible to carry concealed weapons in most public facilities unless they maintain adequate security, such as metal detectors and security at all entrances. Colleges and universities are exempt from this law for four years, during which time we must supply security plans for our facilities.
Major policy regarding abortion restrictions were also adopted in HB 2353. The bill strives to ensure that no tax revenues are used to support abortion services. An administrative change at the KU Medical Center's OB/GYN residency program will be enacted to ensure that accreditation of our residency program is not jeopardized. No abortions are performed at the medical center or its facilities, but training must be offered in order to meet accreditation requirements. Residents are given the opportunity to opt out of the training.
Lawmakers also adopted SB 199, creating the Midwest Adult Stem Cell Center at the KU Medical Center. While no state funding was identified to support the center, the measure nonetheless instructs the university how the center shall be structured. This ignited a spirited debate among lawmakers as to the propriety of politics guiding scientific research.
Also on KU's legislative agenda is HB 2396, which would pave the way for property to be exchanged with the KU Endowment Association. The issue has been promised further actions in the Senate when lawmakers return May 8. It is now tied to a property sale at Emporia State University, which must also garner legislative approval.
During the next four weeks, state lawmakers will be back in their home districts. We know our partners in advocacy for higher education will be joining us as we work to ensure that legislators recognize the devastating cost of slashing higher education funding. For KU, Jayhawks for Higher Education will lead the efforts to connect our many grassroots supporters with lawmakers. Please remember if you reach out to lawmakers, using personal email accounts is the appropriate venue as opposed to your university email address.
Director of State Relations