Archive for Friday, January 30, 2009

House advances deficit reduction bill; would hit public schools harder than Senate plan

Democrats not pleased with proposal, which would reduce cuts on higher ed

January 30, 2009, 10:10 a.m. Updated January 30, 2009, 5:18 p.m.


— A bill for eliminating a state budget deficit cleared a House committee Friday after some members failed to protect public school funding as much as they had hoped.

The bill makes $323 million in adjustments to the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. A little less than half of the adjustments are spending cuts and the remainder are accounting changes and the refinancing of state bonds.

The Appropriations Committee endorsed the measure on a voice vote, setting up a debate in the House next week. The Senate approved a plan Thursday, and the final version of the budget-balancing bill is likely to be drafted by negotiators for both chambers.

Education funding is a key issue. The House committee’s bill cuts aid to public schools by $48 million, more than Democrats and some Republicans wanted. The Senate’s proposed cut is only $7 million.

“We know this has a distance to go, still,” said House committee Chairman Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican who drafted most of the plan. “Our approach is just to have a more fair and balanced allocation of cuts.”

Uncertainty clouds the debate. Many legislators believe the projected $186 million deficit will grow, anticipating that economic turmoil will result in lower-than-expected state revenues.

On Friday, the Department of Revenue reported that tax collections in January were $21 million less than anticipated. Next week, legislative researchers expect to release final revenue figures for the month — and project a larger deficit.

Leaders of the Republican majorities in both chambers have said a bill needs to make at least $300 million worth of adjustments, and the Senate’s plan was worth $335 million. But some Democrats’ target is as low as $280 million.

“Why should we make the more difficult cuts when we don’t need to?” said Rep. Bill Feuerborn, of Garnett, the House committee’s ranking Democrat.

GOP leaders wanted to rely heavily on spending cuts, arguing that avoiding such cuts only pushes the state’s problems into the future.

But the bill senators approved was drafted by a bipartisan coalition over the objections of GOP leaders. Coalition members said they were trying to buy time for schools and vulnerable Kansans, so they can better prepare for cuts during the state’s 2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wants to protect both schools and social services. Her proposals would have forced the state to redistribute some aid among districts, but not cut the overall amount.

Education funding consumes half of the state’s general tax revenues, and the current budget promises $3.79 billion to Kansas’ 295 school districts.

Senate GOP leaders wanted to cut education funding by $99 million. Yoder proposed $53 million in cuts, and his committee opted for its slightly smaller figure.

But Rep. Bill Light, a Rolla Republican, proposed making the cut even smaller, some $14 million. The committee voted 12-11 against his amendment.

With the vote so close, another attempt is all but certain when the House debates the bill. The GOP holds a 76-49 majority, but some moderates like Light will side with Democrats.

Some Republicans believe districts can trim enough administrative costs to cope with a substantial cut.

“We’re not cutting the classroom,” said Rep. Owen Donohoe, a Shawnee Republican. “I don’t think it’s going to affect the children in anyway.”

Others note districts began the 2008-09 school year with $119 million in reserve funds.

“There’s some cover there for a lot of our districts,” said Rep. Barbara Craft, a Junction City Republican.

But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, was skeptical. He noted that some districts wouldn’t have enough reserves to cover cuts and that some of those funds may already be dedicated to certain expenses.

He said districts already were trimming administrative expenses in response to Sebelius’ proposals.

“Virtually everything a school does affects kids,” he said. “If you’re cutting back on field trips, if you’re cutting back on supplies, if you’re canceling summer school — those are the choices districts are going to have to make.”

Defenders of the House committee’s bill said bigger cuts in education funding mean smaller ones for other parts of the budget, including higher education, public safety and social services.

Under the House committee’s plan, social service agencies’ operating budgets are cut about $6 million, but the figure was $23 million under the Senate plan.

And the House committee added extra dollars for in-home services for the disabled, to decrease waiting lists.

“In general, you have a bill that spreads the pain out a little bit,” Yoder said.


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