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ESU administrators field tough questions during lawmaker visit

Members of the Kansas Senate Ways and Means and House Appropriations committees spent much of Tuesday visiting the Emporia State University campus and asking pointed questions about certain university operations.

Lawmakers asked university administrators about policies on attracting transfer students, fee structure for online classes, costs associated with student outcomes and other matters during a special set of campus tours.

Underlying the specifics are even tougher questions to come. According to Ways and Means committee member Ty Masterson of Andover, the question which will answer a lot of questions for lawmakers is exactly what is the state's role in funding higher education.

Lawmakers cut higher education funding three percent during the latest legislative session, but the cut was felt more deeply at ESU because the salary structure was set up differently than at other Regents universities. With the state fully on a "glide path to zero" income taxes, some lawmakers are openly questioning whether they can restore funding -- or whether another three-percent cut should be considered.

ESU President Dr. Michael Shonrock says there was a solid discussion Tuesday, but he admits there has been an impact from the roughly $1.5 million cut for this fiscal year -- with another $1.3 million hit to come next year.

Masterson says he hasn't heard any discussion yet, but Emporia Rep. Don Hill is anticipating significant discussion -- if not action -- on that front next year.

Having said that, Emporia Rep. Peggy Mast says lawmakers trust the decisions and the direction ESU is taking.

Ways and Means committee member Steve Fitzgerald from Leavenworth noted education from kindergarten to college accounts from 63 percent of the state's budget.

ESU officials are certainly worried about potential cuts, and folks associated with Emporia State have expressed concerns they may have to move money generated by the ongoing Now and Forever campaign to operations -- including athletic champion Steve Sauder, who says the athletic department is a classic example of the university having to do more with less -- and it shouldn't have to keep being that way.

Lawmakers weren't the only ones asking questions. Lyon County Commissioner Scott Briggs asked lawmakers to "fund future leaders."

Shonrock says the university has started planning for several different scenarios, including budget cuts of various levels. However, he wants to ensure the university keeps growing.

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