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Archive for Saturday, March 11, 2006

Senator still wants 3-year schools plan

March 11, 2006

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— The Senate's top leader said Friday that he's still committed to passing a three-year K-12 funding plan, adding, "We do it now, or we do it later, in special session."

President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, also said the fate of a plan to increase school funding does not rest on whether legislators vote to expand gambling to help finance it.

Morris made his comments as the Legislature finished the ninth week of its 2006 session without an education funding plan emerging from committee in either chamber, despite bipartisan proposals from leaders.

"It would be nice to have expanded gaming, but we need to proceed with our school finance plan, whatever happens with gaming," Morris said during a news conference.

Legislators must increase school funding because of orders issued last year by the Kansas Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed against the state by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina.

They're hoping to avoid raising taxes by phasing in spending increases over three years. Leaders from both parties also had weeks of talks with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, in hopes of avoiding bickering that could lead to a special legislative session.

A plan from House leaders would boost spending by $500 million, with a first-year installment of $175 million. The Senate leaders' plan calls for $250 million in the first year and $660 million overall, though the figures include property tax revenues that districts would be required to set aside.

Budget projections have shown the state can afford the first year of either plan without raising new revenues because it has healthy cash reserves. But some legislators have suggested abandoning multiyear plans because, without new revenues and with ongoing fiscal commitments, a budget shortfall would appear by mid-2008 and balloon past $600 million by mid-2009.

"That's a bigger hole than what they dug out here for the (Statehouse) parking garage," said House Education Committee Chairman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center. "That does scare people."

Last year, under pressure from the court, legislators increased school spending by $290 million, or more than 10 percent, to more than $3 billion. They allocated part of the new money during a special session in June and July.

But the justices deemed their actions acceptable only for "interim purposes."

In January, a Legislative Division of Post Audit study told legislators the state needed to spend at least $400 million more during the next school year to meet judicial and constitutional mandates.

"We can't do a one-year plan that will have any hope of complying with the court's order," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood.

But other lawmakers contend the Post Audit study has been misread. Among them is House Majority Leader Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, who argued Friday that the study called for more money to be allocated to districts' basic operations. In effect, some money that's already being spent could be moved around, he argued.

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