Topeka — Republican leaders conceded Thursday that they’ll probably lose a legislative debate over cutting social services and education funding to help eliminate a state budget deficit.
Their comments came as the Senate approved, 25-14, a bipartisan bill with smaller cuts than its GOP leaders had proposed. The measure went to the House, where it also attracted support from Democrats and some Republicans.
The bill makes $335 million in adjustments to balance the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. A little less than half of the total comes from spending cuts, and the rest comes from accounting changes and refinancing state bonds.
Leaders of the Republican majorities in both chambers wanted much deeper cuts. They argued avoiding cuts now pushes the state’s problems into the future rather than solving them.
Uncertainty surrounds the budget debate. Many legislators believe the projected $186 million deficit will grow, anticipating that economic turmoil will result in lower-than-expected state revenues. A few hope for significant help from a federal stimulus plan, but the state received bad news Thursday when Cessna Aircraft Co. announced 2,000 additional layoffs.
To help balance the budget, the Senate’s GOP leaders had proposed reducing aid to public schools $99 million, but the Senate bill had only a $7 million cut. The measure contained $23 million in cuts for social service agencies’ budgets, compared with the $52 million GOP leaders sought.
“I think what the House will end up with will look a lot closer to what came over from the Senate than the original proposal,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.
Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had threatened to veto the proposal from Senate GOP leaders, calling it “draconian.” Spokeswoman Beth Martino stopped short of promising Sebelius would sign the Senate, bill but called bipartisan support for it “encouraging.”
“It’s definitely better than where it started,” she said.
The House Appropriations Committee began reviewing the Senate bill even before senators voted. It could vote on the measure Friday.
Committee members said the House undoubtedly will make changes, but some added they like the Senate’s approach of trying to buy time for vulnerable Kansans and schools instead of imposing disruptive cuts first.
Sebelius’ fellow Democrats in the House have natural allies in moderate Republicans who worry about hurting public schools.
Rep. Bill Light, a Rolla Republican, called the Senate plan “a good start” and added, “We’ll probably end up with pretty much the same thing.”
Republican leaders said they didn’t want to hurt schools or social services, but are looking ahead to fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.
The gap between anticipated revenues and current spending commitments for fiscal 2010 is more than $1 billion. Every spending cut imposed now can be continued in fiscal 2010, helping the next budget balance.
“The collective backbone in the Legislature was a few vertebrae short for what had to be done,” said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican. “But that’s democracy, and that’s the decision, and we’ll now move on and start working on next year.”
But supporters of the Senate bill said there’s some value in waiting to impose cuts, giving state agencies and public schools time to plan for them.
Education officials contend a substantial cut in aid before June 30 would force many districts to borrow money to cover expenses — and to impose special property taxes to pay off the debt. Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said most of their dollars go to salaries.
“Most of their people, certainly the high-salaried people, are under contract for the year,” Tallman said. “Though it’s a little more than halfway through the school year, far more than half of the budget is absolutely committed.”
Republicans generally are pessimistic about how far short of expectations state revenues will fall, and a few predict the deficit in the current budget could balloon past $400 million.
But some Democrats don’t believe revenues will slump so much. Legislators expected to know more Friday from preliminary Department of Revenue figures on tax collections for January.
State officials also are waiting for action from Washington on a federal stimulus plan. Some estimates for what Kansas could receive from the House version are as high as $1.7 billion during 2009 and 2010.
Optimism about the stimulus package and state revenues has fueled at least a few Democrats’ desire to wait on spending cuts.
“I’d rather see what the stimulus is and what revenues are so we can make a more sound decision,” said Rep. Bill Feuerborn, of Garnett, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
But Schmidt dismissed the promise of federal dollars as “a narcotic,” and Sebelius hasn’t built any stimulus funds into her proposals.
Her staff and some legislators said it’s premature to discuss the stimulus because Kansas doesn’t know how many conditions will be attached to the money it receives. And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder said the stimulus funds won’t continue indefinitely into the future.
“It’s one-time money. It will be earmarked for specific projects,” said Yoder, an Overland Park Republican. “Our inability to balance our budget should not be solved by a federal bailout. We need to be responsible and make our budget balance.”