Topeka The Kansas House on Tuesday advanced a bill to ensure funding increases to public schools for the next two years and provide extra money for repairs at public universities.
But the so-called "lockbox" for school finance was more symbolic than real, and the $15 million per year in new funds for universities is far short of what higher education officials say they need.
Still, House leaders said the measure represented an important step early in the 2007 legislative session. It received preliminary approval on a voice vote, and a final House vote will be taken today.
"Because we've been fortunate with increased revenues, we have an opportunity to set aside those funds this previous Legislature committed to," said state Rep. Lee Tafanelli, R-Ozawkie.
Tafanelli, who carried the bill during House debate, said the school finance portion of the legislation would place in a trust fund $271.7 million over the next two years.
That would cover the final two years of the three-year, $466 million school funding increase that lawmakers approved last year and later was OK'd by the Kansas Supreme Court to end a long-running lawsuit.
During committee testimony on the bill, however, budget experts said setting up the trust fund wouldn't completely protect the money if future Legislatures wanted to dip into it.
Even so, there appears to be near unanimous support in the Legislature to protect those funds. A similar measure was approved in the Senate, 37-1, earlier this month.
The higher education part of the bill would appropriate $76.6 million to retire the debt on existing bonds that have been used for repairs at universities.
The transaction essentially would provide $15 million in additional funds for each of the next five years for maintenance at the schools.
But the Kansas Board of Regents universities had listed a need for $727 million in repairs, and the state's community colleges submitted $150 million. On Tuesday, higher education officials removed some repairs to athletic buildings and other noncritical areas to reduce the universities' price tag to $663 million.
Tafanelli, who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the bill approved by the House should be seen as the "beginning" of discussion on a maintenance plan. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has said she would release a proposal later this month, and a Senate task force is expected to put a package together this week.
During House debate, numerous amendments were trotted out to change the school finance formula, but none succeeded.
Tafanelli said he wanted to keep the legislation clean without rehashing the entire school finance formula and other budget priorities.
Other lawmakers agreed.
"I really hope that we don't open this can of worms. We really don't want to encourage any more lawsuits," said state Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy.
The only amendment to the bill that was approved would allow the state to accelerate debt payments on $500 million in pension bonds that the state purchased in 2004.
"We did these bonds when we were in a financial crisis," said the amendment's author, state Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Cummings. "Now, our economy is improving. So by April, if the funds are available, it would be a good choice to set up this state debt reduction fund."