Archive for Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Senate resumes school funding talks

March 8, 2011

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— A Kansas Senate panel endorsed most of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed cuts in aid to public schools, reflecting a loss of federal aid and tight state revenues.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee adopted a subcommittee's recommendation to reduce the base aid to Kansas' 289 school districts in the fiscal year beginning July 1. The panel followed the outline of Brownback's proposal, making minor tweaks to specific programs in effort to blunt the effect.

"The education budget is struggling, but all budgets are struggling," said Sen. Mark Taddiken, a Clay Center Republican.

Senators moved about $4 million around in the Department of Education budget, adding $6 back to the base per pupil. If adopted, school districts would see their base aid per student drop to $3,786.

The recommendation also requires that half of any new revenue collected by the state in 2011 above the April forecast be dedicated to public schools.

"Given our revenue at the end of February and the prospects, it doesn't look promising there will any new revenue," said Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican.

State revenues collections were off $11 million in February from what had been expected.

Vratil and two Senate colleagues resumed negotiations Tuesday with three House members to find a compromise plan to trim the current budget. The group, which had not met Monday or last week, is supposed to draft a final, compromise version of a bill revising the current budget, but the work has stalled over special education spending.

Senators offered a new proposal to end that impasse while still meeting Brownback's goal of reducing overall spending.

The U.S. Department of Education is demanding that Kansas increase its current spending by $26 million or face losing the same amount of money each year, starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1. Brownback and legislators want to prevent the loss of federal funds, but the governor also is keen to reduce the current budget.

House members had pushed a plan to divert the money to special education from schools' base state aid per student, a move senators opposed because the base aid already would be cut under Brownback's recommendations. Senators instead proposed an accounting move — delaying a state contribution to the pension fund for teachers and government workers — to push the burden into the next fiscal year.

Senators still want to delay the pension payment, but, to deal with House members' insistence on a reduction in overall spending, they proposed a series of new cuts to both the current and next fiscal year's budgets. The biggest cut would be the elimination of $10 million in longevity bonuses for state employees in the next fiscal year.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and her chamber's lead negotiator, said she's hoping lawmakers can send the budget bill to Brownback this week. The governor had wanted lawmakers to send him the bill before February.

"We heard a lot of people say that they didn't want new spending," she said. "We went and found the money, so I'm hoping that we're going to have some forward progress."

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican who is his chamber's lead negotiator, remained skeptical because senators still want to push part of the special education funding burden into the next fiscal year.

"They made us an offer, which is great," he said.

Brownback had endorsed the House's proposal for resolving the special education funding issue in the current budget, and his aides hadn't seen the latest Senate proposal.

The governor wanted to trim about $38 million from the current state budget, leaving cash reserves of about $35 million at the end of June. The state could then roll the savings and the cash reserves into the next fiscal year, helping to reduce its projected $493 million budget shortfall.

But special education funding has complicated the debate. The House didn't originally include any extra special education dollars in its version of the budget bill, which met Brownback's target for spending cuts. The Senate included the money, but its version of the bill would have left cash reserves of less than $3 million.

The senators' plan to delay a $69 million pension payment from mid-April until after July 1 would have freed up funds to add money for special education while leaving cash reserves of $83 million at the end of June — though the reserves would have immediately disappeared once the new fiscal year began.

But the House members' plan would have cut base state aid $40 per student, on top of the $232 per student that Brownback already has proposed — making the total decline almost 7 percent and dropping the figure from $4,012 per student to $3,740. School districts are already worried about having to lay off personnel this spring.

Associated Press writer John Hanna contributed to this report.

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