Governor-elect Kelly aware of higher education issues, but not a 2019 priority

Democratic Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly says she’s aware the state may need to help higher education institutions but has more pressing issues she needs to focus on during her first legislative session.

“We’re going to have to deal with situations in the state in a sort of triage approach, where we go after the critical issues first,” Kelly said, listing K-12 education funding, Medicaid expansion, infrastructure and the state’s foster care program as the main issues. “I’m fully aware of the needs for higher education and we will be reviewing those and doing what we can.”

Under Republican former Gov. Sam Brownback, higher education saw its budget slashed by $30.7 million. Lawmakers restored $6 million of that in 2017 and another $15 million in May. But despite the partial restoration of funding, the University of Kansas announced it would need to make a $20 million cut from its own budget.

Kelly, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 14, said she’s aware morale seems to be low at the university because of the proposed budget cuts and ensuing layoffs.

“Higher education has not been immune to the damage that has been done over the past several years,” Kelly said, referring to the state’s budget crisis during Brownback’s tenure.

She said government can help by passing a balanced budget and reinstating an executive order that provides state workers with protections from job discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity, she said.

“I think that will send a message to other states that Kansas is open and we are friendly and this is a place you’ll want to consider,” she said of the LGBT protection order. “Those are the types of things that can help the university and its morale.”

She said that increasing enrollment also would help and noted that foreign student enrollment is down.

“I think that’s a lot because families in other countries see the United States as an unfriendly place at the moment, so they are sending their kids to Canada or London.”