State budget finalized on Senate vote; universities and Wichita job-training facility take a hit

By Dion Lefler

Eagle Topeka Bureau

TOPEKA – Kansas universities and the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita took a fiscal “haircut” in the final state budget that passed out of the Legislature on Sunday.

The $14.3 billion budget passed with a $56.1 million cut to public universities over the next two years and a $2 million cut in state support of NCAT, the aviation job training program at Col. James Jabara Airport.

The budget does protect several Wichita-area priorities, including $5 million a year each for low-cost airline service to Mid-Continent Airport and the National Institute for Aviation Research.

Those allocations are set for the next two years.

However, the budget trims state aid to regents universities by $23.3 million in 2014 and $32.8 million in 2015, including salary reductions and a 1.5 percent cut in general fund support.

In the Senate debate, Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the cuts made a mockery of Gov. Sam Brownback’s university tour earlier this year.

While touring the state’s campuses, Brownback had said he would maintain current funding for higher education.

“Now we’re looking at a budget that I guess the governor’s going to sign, after he said he was going to hold higher education harmless,” Hensley said. “What are we to believe in this state when we have rhetoric that does not match the action?”

That drew a strong response from Ways and Means Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who said it’s incorrect to pan Brownback for statements he made on the college tour because he fully intended to keep university funding whole when he said that.

“I think anyone who knows the man knows he is sincere,” Masterson said.

The budget reduces NCAT’s state support from $5 million to $3 million.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, questioned whether that was a wise policy at a time when job creation is a high priority.

“It’s one of the very successful programs we have here in our state and across the nation,” McGinn said. “Lots of states come and look at this facility and try to figure out how to copy it … I just think it’s a bad time to be taking money from a facility that has a 98 percent placement rating.”

Masterson said it could have been worse.

“There was even discussion about taking it all at one point when they were looking for cuts, but we rejected that and we felt this would be more appropriate to hold them at three (million dollars),” he said.

Jason Watkins, the lobbyist for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and a former legislator, said it was disappointing that NCAT got cut, but that the appropriation was set for one year only and he thinks there’s a good chance the funding could go back up to $5 million next year.

He said the Chamber is pleased that NIAR and the affordable airfare program got full funding for two years.

In addition, the budget includes $750,000 in funding for the Judge James V. Riddel Boys Ranch, the juvenile correctional facility at Lake Afton that was threatened with closure last year during a Sedgwick County budget crunch.

It also includes a proviso prohibiting the University of Kansas from cutting back its medical resident program in Wichita.

Budget negotiators did drop a proviso that would have earmarked $87,000 to support two professional golf tournaments, the Air Capital Open in Wichita and the National Public Links Championship in Newton.

Budget negotiators removed that language after being criticized for supporting golf tournaments when priority state services were being cut.

However, that doesn’t mean the tournaments won’t get the money. It’s still in the budget and could be provided in the form of economic development grants because of the tournaments’ impact on community commerce.

The Senate vote was cliffhanger and the budget didn’t pass until about 2 a.m.

Initially, it came down at 19-16, two votes short of passage.

That triggered a “call” of the Senate, in which senators were required to stay in their seats and the doors to the chamber guarded while attempts were made to track down missing members.

Three of them were out of state, but Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, was located after about 20 minutes and cast the 20th “aye” vote.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth changed his vote, giving the measure the necessary majority and clearing the way to end the session.

The House passed the bill Saturday afternoon, also on a close vote that required a call.

After Fitzgerald voted, freshman Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, injected some levity into what had become a grueling process.

He told Senate President Susan Wagle he was going to switch his vote from yes to no, which would have prolonged the stalemate.

But then he added: “I wouldn’t do that to you. I just want out of here.”