Topeka — Republican legislative leaders on Friday pushed for an across-the-board cut in this year’s state budget, including public school funding, but were getting pushed back by Democrats and some members of their own party.
Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, said an across-the-board cut was the “fairest way to do what has to be done in the current year’s budget.” And he said he hoped to have such a proposal up for a vote before the full Senate by next week. Republicans hold a 31-9 advantage in the Senate.
But in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans were thwarting a move in that direction.
State Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said he would propose an across-the-board cut to public schools, but didn’t say how much.
That prompted complaints from several senators who said they didn’t appreciate working on the budget without knowing how big of a cut Vratil had in mind.
“There’s definitely something cooking here,” said state Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, during a break in the committee meeting, which ran all day.
But Ways and Means Chairman Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, said the size of an across-the-board cut couldn’t be determined until the committee had worked through the budget for the present fiscal year. The panel, however, stalled as Democrats demanded more information on the effect that proposed adjustments in public school funding would have on individual districts. The committee will resume meeting Tuesday.
Lawmakers face a $186 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year. The deficit could skyrocket to nearly $1 billion in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has proposed budgets for both years that rely on targeted cuts, including a 7 percent reduction for higher education, the diversion of funds that were supposed to go to local governments, and stopping the phase-out of some tax cuts.
Sebelius’ budget will cause school districts to cut back somewhat, but Republican leaders say schools, which receive 52 percent of state funding, should take a larger hit.
Some legislators have talked about cuts to schools in the 3 percent to 5 percent range.
Such a reduction in the present school year would cause great disruption, said Lawrence Superintendent Randy Weseman.
A 5 percent cut condensed into the last half of the fiscal year would mean the district would have to cut about $3 million, he said.
“That would be a ‘stop the presses’ kind of deal,” Weseman said.
Since most school expenditures are tied into already approved contracts with teachers, such a cut would have to be carved from funds currently spent on classified support positions, such as paraprofessionals, custodians and cooks, he said.
Sebelius has also repeatedly said an across-the-board cut would be harmful.
“Governor Sebelius has been very clear about her belief that making strategic cuts is a much more responsible approach to balancing the budget,” said her spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran.
But Schmidt, the majority leader in the Senate, said the growing size of the state deficit means schools will have to absorb a larger cut.
“It is fair and it is reasonable and it is constitutional for public schools to do their part in helping Kansas bring its budget back into balance,” he said.