FHSU's leader reacts to tax bill

Dr. Mirta Martin

A deep sense of relief has been a hallmark of virtually everyone's reaction to the much-delayed end of the 2015 Kansas legislative session, but for Fort Hays State University President Mirta M. Martin, that feeling was among the deepest in the state: $32 million worth.

"If the tax bill had not passed, and the governor had carried through with one of his proposed cuts, higher education in Kansas would have been virtually shut down until a strategy had been enacted. I would have had to furlough every employee of the university," President Martin said this week.

"And I would be meeting with the members of my executive team, all unpaid, to figure out what would be left -- and more importantly, who to keep -- and how to pay for it."

By late Thursday, the Legislature was still facing a $400 million-plus shortfall in the proposed budget for next year. A tax plan had not yet been approved, and Gov. Sam Brownback said that if the Legislature did not have a tax plan by Monday, one option would be to fill $384 million of the hole by using the entire state funding for the Regents institutions.

Fort Hays State's share would come to $32 million. President Martin spent Thursday and Friday in Topeka urging lawmakers to save higher education.

She said that almost all the talk about the tax bill emphasizes that it is the largest tax increase in Kansas history.

"All I can do is say it again: Taking our state operating funds would have virtually shut down FHSU, and that would have taken paychecks away from hundreds of people, and taken away an education from thousands of students," she said.

"It would have taken a 100-percent tuition increase at FHSU to make up the difference, and that's just on paper. But in realty, the numbers of students would not have been there because many of them could not afford that kind of cost increase, and for the ones who were left we would have had to increase tuition by at least another 50-percent to try to make up the loss."

President Martin was careful to explain that the feeling of relief does not equal endorsement of the tax plan.

"All this does is it lets us live to fight another day," she said. "My responsibility is to protect the 800-plus Fort Hays State families who earn their livings at our institution. I was looking out for the students who depend on us for their educations, who are banking a large part of their futures on what they want to learn here."

"Those people are my responsibility, as are our obligations to the local businesses, contractors and vendors who depend on Fort Hays State for a large part of their livelihoods. Those are the people whose voices I carried with me to the Capitol."

By Friday, there was only one option left to avoid devastation to FHSU. Some legislators argued that the governor was bluffing, that he would never go through with such drastic cuts.

"And I said maybe, maybe not, but do you really want to risk higher education in Kansas on that kind of bet?"

The essence of leadership is to make the unpopular decisions in times of crisis, said President Martin.

"It could be said that higher education in Kansas was in crisis, and whatever the political merits or flaws of this particular tax bill, the legislators who voted to pass it came to grips with reality." More time was needed, but time had run out in this session, and painful decisions had to be made, she said.

For President Martin, the primary issue was much closer to home. She did not have to return to Hays to shut down Fort Hays State and then decide how much of it could be brought back.

"We lived to fight another day," she said, "and I am thankful for that."

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