Archive for Monday, January 13, 2014

Kansas: Bioscience, higher ed funding raise serious concerns

January 13, 2014

— The fight over higher education funding was one of the most bruising in the last legislative session and promises to be again.

And related to higher education funding cuts, alarms are being raised over the diminished role of the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Conservatives cut state higher education funding by approximately $34 million and have given every indication they believe higher ed could take more cuts.

Meanwhile, post-secondary institutions and the Kansas Board of Regents have made restoration of the cuts their No. 1 priority.

"Education is the largest economic tool that we have in this state," said state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence.

When the session ended last year, Kansas University received a $13.5 million cut, which fell particularly hard on the KU Medical Center.

But in addition to trying to restore the cuts, KU wants the Legislature to approve funding for a $75 million health education building and funds to expand the KU School of Medicine-Wichita program. This will meet the state's physician needs, KU says.

Gov. Sam Brownback has talked about trying to restore the cuts, but legislative leaders sounded cool to the idea.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she didn't believe higher education would suffer another round of cuts, but she didn't think the cut funding would be restored either.

And House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said of higher education funding, "Like last year, it will go through the appropriations process." Merrick said he read a national report that said universities were cutting back on administrative expenses. "I think some of the universities in the state ought to be doing that," he said.

He said there is no government function or business "that can't stand to be cut."

Bioscience

Legislators also are voicing concerns about cuts to the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Five years ago, Kansas had a national reputation of growing the bioscience industry. "We have done a 180-degree turn," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who is running for governor. "This is a mistake that has been made and needs to be undone in the future."

The KBA, established in 2004, was charged with investing tax funds to help grow the bioscience sector in Kansas.

It had been operating on a budget of more than $35 million per year in some years. But state funding support has been cut the past several years, falling to about $4 million this year.

In 2011 and 2012, a high-powered struggle ensued between Brownback and the KBA board.

Brownback and other conservative Republicans questioned management and investments under former CEO Tom Thornton, who resigned in 2011 for a job in Ohio.

A $1 million audit of the KBA found that the KBA board had handled investments in an acceptable manner, but alleged some questionable expenditures by Thornton.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans had accused Brownback of a power grab in trying to take over the KBA; — an allegation that Brownback denied.

In recent weeks, higher education officials have also decried the reduced role of the KBA, which had been a key player in helping Kansas secure a federal bio-safety lab and KU's Cancer Center gain national designation.

But Wagle and Merrick said they have confidence in the KBA's president, Duane Cantrell, and believed the agency is on the right track.

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