Topeka Kansas legislators grew frustrated Monday with the slow pace of talks on a $14 billion state budget, with House and Senate negotiators blaming each other for their inability so far to resolve differences over education funding and other issues.
Three senators and three House members planned to resume talks Monday evening on the state's spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. They hadn't met for four days, an unusually long stretch in the final two weeks of the Legislature's annual session.
The budget will eliminate a projected shortfall that has approached $500 million and could leave a small cushion of cash reserves. Overall spending is likely to drop between 5 percent and 6 percent, or by $770 million to $870 million, with much of the decrease reflecting the disappearance of federal economic stimulus funds.
Legislators can't wrap up the year's business until they pass a budget, and Monday was the 81st day of their annual session, out of 90 scheduled. Dozens of spending issues remain unresolved.
"I want the budget done by Friday," said House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.
But Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican who's one of his chamber's negotiators, was skeptical that legislators could meet O'Neal's timetable.
"The big differences are still the big differences," he said. "We haven't made progress on the major issues."
Those include education funding, although any plan approved by legislators is likely to force the state's 289 school districts to consider laying off teachers and other employees later this spring.
The House voted to cut the state's basic aid to its public schools by $250 per student, or 6 percent, shifting a small part of the savings into special education programs. The Senate's proposed cut is $226 per student, with members shifting money from various programs to allow for a smaller cut than the $232 per student that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback proposed. The current base aid figure is $4,012 per student.
Leaders of the Senate's GOP majority want to keep the cut in aid to schools as small as possible and had bipartisan support for their budget.
Meanwhile, leaders of the House's Republican majority face pressure from some conservatives to cut school aid — and the rest of the budget — more deeply than the chamber has. The House Appropriations Committee has continued to discuss such proposals even as the House and Senate negotiate.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and her chamber's lead negotiator, said the House panel's discussions could complicate the ongoing talks between the two chambers, raising new issues even as negotiators try to settle existing ones.
"At some point in time, it's time to close up shop," McGinn said.
Talks were delayed Monday because many legislators attended the funeral of the late Rep. Rocky Fund, a Hoyt Republican who died of cancer last week.
And House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said senators have slowed talks by not offering enough concessions. He said House members are more willing to "give quite a bit."
"You need to tell them to offer us some more stuff," he said, when told of senators' frustrations.
The two chambers continue to differ on several visible budget proposals from Brownback.
The House's version of the budget assumes the state moves forward with Brownback's plan to close the Kansas Neurological Institute, a state hospital for the developmentally disabled by June 2013. The Senate's version would keep the hospital open.
Senators rejected Brownback's plan to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission as a state agency and replace it with a private, non-profit foundation, providing $689,000 to keep the commission operating past July 1. The House endorsed Brownback's plan.
The governor also proposed eliminating operating grants for public broadcasting stations to save $1.7 million, and the House agreed to cut such funding by $1.5 million. The Senate's version of the budget, however, contains no cut.