Q&A: Lt. Gov. discusses state budget, higher education and rural prosperity

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Trey Kuhlmann, Wildcat 91.9 news director: So about a week ago, Governor Kelly declared her state of the state address and to address what her focus will be in the coming year in her term. What do you think are some of the most important things to gather from her state of the state address?

Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers: Well, I think the first part is, you know, Governor Kelly and I were really elected to kind of rebuild the state, and so we issued a structurally balanced budget for the first time in a long time. What that really means is that we have more income than outflow and we’re trying to continue that process of rebuilding. We’re trying to pay off debt. As Kansans, we got a lot of heavy debt that we need to get paid off. That means there’s a lot of repayments that are going to be coming up. We’re continuing to invest in our children and our families, you know, with hiring staff. And then one of the big things that we’re trying to do is also some property tax and food sales tax relief, which we think is really, really vital as we’ve traveled around the state. That’s one thing we’ve heard.

Bailey Britton, Collegian managing editor: Also in the State of the State address, she mentioned restructuring higher education funding. So what is the goal of that?

Rogers: One of the things we’re really proud of is it’s the first time in probably two or three decades where we’re doing a budget where we don’t have an unconstitutional K-12 school finance formula. That takes a lot of stress and a lot of problems away. What we’re wanting to do is continue to, you know, invest In our higher ed. Last year, we were able to put $46 million into our higher education. And again, the first time for years where, because the governor pushed with the [Board of Regents], we didn’t raise tuition in the state, which was really important.

This year, there’s two big things: we’re continuing to invest in higher ed, where I think we’ve got $23 million in the budget for that. But we also have $5 million that we’re putting to help students with tuition for lower income students. Again, that’s the first time we’ve done that. Then we’re also helping our community colleges that work with our high schools. We’re trying to fund more of the technical education certificate type programs as well. So that’s kind of where we’re going. Our influence on the higher end system is through appointing Regents and we’re wanting to continue to make sure we’re doing that. I know the governor’s talked with the regents about doing a study — we haven’t done on for 30 years — in terms of what schools offer what programs, and, you know, where are we investing, where are we not? Also continuing to work on some things with our workforce development councils and some of those things, too.

Kuhlmann: You’re talking about the 2021 budget, which has been released about a week ago at this point?

Rogers: Yes.

Kuhlmann: So where all does the governor state of the state address get reflected in this 2021 report?

Rogers: Well, like I said, we’re putting another $23 million in and that goes into what is called kind of a block grant. We give that to the regents and then they determine where that goes. Most state agencies put in how much they’re going to pay for this or that and other things. We’ve also put money into the capital budget for, you know, different universities. I know there’s funding and then there’s also some ability for bonding for some programs here at K-State for buildings and things like that. I think there’s $20 million for that.

And then there’s some energy savings work that will go for a couple of different buildings that will help put money back into the campus. Again, energy efficiency will reduce operating costs, which could take pressure off of the program as well. We’re very concerned that we have cost effective tuition. I mean, the tuitions been going up so much. It’s keeping people from getting into higher education. And we know that the jobs of the 21st century are really going to require advanced learning and so we’ve got to continue to emphasize that.

Britton: Since enrollment at institutions like K-State keep declining, is that a reflection of the declining census in Kansas?

Rogers: I think some of it is the higher higher cost — the rising tuition. Some of it is also, you know, lower numbers of population and I think in some cases, we’ve had a big outflow of Kansans in urban and rural [communities]. We’ve got to make sure that we get that turned around. I got to travel this summer for the Office of Rural Prosperity and one of the things that we saw that some of our real, innovative communities that are, I think, going to be successful for the long term. We are in the company of the cities that work with their students: when they go away to school, they encourage them to come back.

To me, that’s really important, because if we can keep people in Kansas, they can raise their families here. And then we can have future students as well. But as they move to Chicago or New York or whatever, the likelihood of them coming back is not as great. So we’ve got to really work hard at retaining our students as well.

Kuhlmann: You’re talking about the Office of Rural Prosperity, and the last time we had you here, we have the opportunity to talk a little bit about that. Would you say that’s a pretty good wrap up of what you gained from this tour?

Rogers: The tour was great. You know, since we’ve been in office, we’ve traveled to about 72 counties, almost 20,000 miles. To me, it’s really important to get out of Topeka as often as we can and talk to Kansans. But on this tour, we really asked ‘what is prosperity?’ They told us that it’s access to a high quality job that pays well, they can raise a family, have retirement in a community that has a quality of life.

I think that’s probably similar to what my neighbors in Wichita or Johnson County would say, but what we we also heard where there’s some great things going on in rural Kansas, we don’t often brag about them. For instance, Colby, when we were there, some of the great quality of life issues that they’re addressing, we saw that in Winfield, we saw that in Garnett.

Then we talked about the things that stand in their way and that included their concerns for access to broad healthcare. They’re concerned about their hospitals and we heard over and over again how important Medicaid expansion was. We heard access to broadband. Twenty percent of Kansans don’t have access to broadband. We think in rural Kansas that’s a much higher number. If we want precision agriculture to prosper, we’ve got to have that for our farmers and ranchers. But also, if we want to bring back families and millennials, we’ve got to have broadband where people could start businesses.

We saw the concern about property tax where it’s high and it’s spread over a smaller, shrinking base. That makes it makes it tough. We also heard housing is not adequate. There’s a lot of our housing stocks built prior to 1940s. Some are before World War I. We’ve got to upgrade those. There’s not a lot of builders and developers in some of our communities. So how do we make cost effective and medium-priced housing is really where it came in more than anywhere else.

Kuhlmann: Is there anything you’d like to add for the students at K-State?

Rogers: We hope that school continues to go well. One of the big things that we’re excited about now is the census in 2020. April 1, students will be counted here in Manhattan. So we want to make sure that they participate in that.

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My name is Bailey Britton and I am the managing editor for the Collegian. I grew up in Colby, Kansas. I am a sophomore studying journalism with minors in leadership studies and English. I value quality news coverage and believe that communication is a vital part of solving problems. When I have free time, I like to spend time with friends and family or be outdoors with a good book.