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Archive for Saturday, January 31, 2009

House committee endorses plan on state’s budget deficit

January 31, 2009

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— 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 bill 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 what 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.

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