Cash, school aid big issue in Kan. budget talks

By John Hanna

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 5 2011 8:35 p.m. MDT

Kansas state Sen. Terrie Huntington, a Fairway Republican, consults with Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, during a break in budget negotiations between the House and Senate, Thursday, May 5, 2011, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Vratil is one of the negotiators.

John Hanna, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers dickered Thursday over building up the state's cash reserves while they negotiate over a $14 billion budget, while the state Democratic Party's leader predicted that education funding cuts being considered by the Republican-controlled Legislature will devastate public schools.

Work stalled on a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that will trim overall spending by between 5 percent and 6 percent. The next budget also is certain to cut general aid to the state's 289 school districts, something decried by Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon, a former state revenue secretary and House member.

The three senators and three House members drafting the final version of the budget still must reconcile dozens of differences between their chambers — and they failed to resolve any major spending issues Thursday. Their talks were scheduled to resume Friday and were expected to go into next week.

Legislators can't wrap up their business for the year until the negotiators agree on a budget and each chamber approves the spending plan in an up-or-down vote. Thursday was the 84th day of lawmakers' annual session, out of 90 scheduled.

"My concern at this point is whether or not we're making progress," said lead Senate negotiator Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of her chamber's Ways and Means Committee.

The next budget will cut overall spending by between $770 million and $870 million to meet the state constitution's requirement of avoiding a deficit. Much of the decrease in spending will be triggered by the disappearance of federal economic stimulus funds.

House Republicans argued Thursday that the next budget also must provide cash reserves of at least $50 million at the end of June 2012.

That's actually a relatively low figure, because guidelines developed in the past would lead to cash reserves of more than $450 million. Few legislators want to build a cushion that large now because it would come at the expense of schools, social services and other government programs — or force tax increases.

But lead House negotiator Marc Rhoades said the state needs at least a small cushion in case revenues don't meet expectations. The state expects to collect $6 billion in revenues to help finance state government, along with federal funds, special fees and other funds, and a 1 percent shortfall would amount to $60 million.

"They say they are always off at least 1 percent. It could be to the good, which would be great, but it could be to the bad," said Rhoades, a Newton Republican and chairman of his chamber's Appropriations Committee. "To the bad, we're under water."

McGinn said senators agree on the need for cash reserves but don't want to have a target govern all spending decisions. She also noted that the state's tax collections in April were $22 million more than anticipated.

"We're looking a good public policy and a way to run the state and be as efficient as we can," she said. "I really think that perhaps they should focus on our core services."

Wagnon had a Statehouse news conference to criticize the potential cuts in aid to schools. She said the reductions being considered would mean teacher layoffs, larger classes and higher fees for parents. She said the budget could be a "death knell" for rural schools.

The Senate's version of the budget would cut the state's general aid to schools by $226 per student, or about 5.6 percent. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback proposed a $232-per-student cut, and the House passed a $250-per-student cut.

The current aid figure is $4,012 per student. Any of the proposals would drop the figure to its lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year.

"It's time to contact legislators and express your priorities before these decisions are finalized," she said. "I am appalled at the state of funding for public schools."

Wagnon said legislators could consider any number of revenue-raising measures, such as rethinking past corporate tax breaks, to head off such deep cuts.

But the GOP-controlled Legislature isn't considering any such proposals, seeing them as tax increases, something Brownback and other Republicans strongly oppose.

McGinn said senators are trying to keep the education funding cuts as small as possible. Rhoades said that if lawmakers don't reduce education funding, "The cuts would have to come from some other place."

Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Kansas Democratic Party: http://www.ksdp.org

Kansas Republican Party: http://www.ksgop.org

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