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KU likely to receive around $41M from Biden’s stimulus bill, but much still up in the air, official says

The University of Kansas is likely to receive nearly triple the amount of federal dollars from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law this week than it did from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act legislation a year ago, a top KU official told The Lawrence Times.

Jack Cline, who serves as KU’s associate vice chancellor for federal relations and lobbies on behalf of the university in Washington, D.C., said that even with the approximately $41 million allocation he expects KU to receive, there are many questions that remain up in the air.

“Public research universities across the country, like KU, have been impacted severely by this pandemic. The economic losses across campuses are like no other we’ve experienced, and we desperately need these dollars,” Cline said via email. “That said, this bill attempts to address a spectrum of issues certainly impacted by the pandemic but with a brush stroke that’s too broad. For example, not every state legislature faces a such a mounting fiscal crisis as our lawmakers do, in Topeka.”

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“Therefore, the federal formula for disseminating these relief funds to states isn’t being launched from Capitol Hill like a precision missile,” he continued. “There’s a reason why lawmakers have (labeled) this bill a ‘blue state bailout.’ The criticism is directed towards states who called for immediate shutdown thus creating significant unemployment and steep revenue declines.”

That’s not to say the $41 million that will soon come KU’s way — a marked increase from the $15.1 million it received via the CARES Act — isn’t welcome, Cline said.

“There is absolutely no doubt these dollars are needed and can’t get here fast enough,” he said. “However, what’s frustrating about this bill (and previous relief bills) is that it doesn’t provide the kind of spending flexibility we wish it would have contained.”

In the CARES Act legislation, for example, the Department of Education dictated that half of whatever allotment a university received had to be given to qualifying students in the form of emergency grants. So KU’s $15.1 million award — which had to plug holes in a budget shortfall estimated at that time to be $120 million — was immediately cut in half.

The Department of Education this time around — also under the new leadership of Secretary Miguel Cardona — hasn’t yet publicized its directives for how universities should disperse payouts. Cardona, a new appointment of Biden, heaped praise on the sweeping legislation in a statement Friday.

“This plan also includes $40 billion in critical resources to help colleges operate safely and provide assistance to help students complete their studies,” Cardona said. “It will take years to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19 — including the ways that the pandemic exacerbated the existing inequities in our education system. To repair the harm done, our schools and educators will need predictable resources. That’s what this rescue plan provides.”

But Cline said it’s clear the funds still won’t be as malleable as universities need them to be.

“It can be mind numbing and it’s frustratingly bureaucratic. The higher ed lobbyist message was to request flexibility to universities to direct these dollars to needy students and programs that support our operations,” he said. “Congress simply did not provide this flexibility.”

KU’s current budget situation still appears to be strained. In a campus message on Jan. 19, Chancellor Douglas Girod said the university faces a budget shortfall in fiscal year 2022 (which begins in July) of some $74.6 million. The message also excoriated Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget for the same time period, which called for a 5.3% cut to KU’s base appropriation from the state, which amounts to $13.6 million.

That proposed reduction, Girod said at the time, included a $7.6 million cut for Lawrence and a $6 million cut for KU Medical Center. As a percentage, it would be the largest state cut to KU since 2010, and the largest slashed dollar amount in the university’s history.

However, those cuts may not ultimately be necessary since Biden’s stimulus package includes a key provision the CARES Act did not: direct aid to state and local governments. Exact figures here are also still unclear, but Cline said that of the $350 billion earmarked for those agencies, he expects the state of Kansas to receive around $1.5 billion.

Kelly’s SPARK Taskforce, which she commissioned after the CARES Act passed to equitably distribute and manage the federal funds, will likely be the agency tasked with doing the same thing with the newly signed stimulus legislation. How exactly they’ll dole out funds to Kansas’ colleges and universities is unclear, but KU will likely garner some additional assistance from those funds as well.

Cline said the higher education community also continues to be disappointed with the lack of federal legislation to aid researchers negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he continues to lobby for bills that seek to address the funding gap those researchers have faced by an inability to complete their work because of pandemic restrictions.

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