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Friday, April 18, 2014

Kansas House adds more money for schools, passes budget

By Brad Cooper
Eagle Topeka bureau

TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature moved closer to increasing funding for education Tuesday when it approved a plan to add $50 million to elementary and secondary education.

The House voted 99-17 to add the money to a $14 billion budget that it started debating midday Tuesday and passed about 11:30 p.m. The vote to pass the budget was 77-44.

The education money approved by the House sets the chamber up to negotiate with the Senate, which last week put $77 million into education for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The action taken by the House left some education advocates optimistic that the Legislature might increase education funding after cutting state base aid per pupil in recent years.

“This is the first time since 2009 that we’re actually talking about adding dollars,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The vote to add education funding was seen as key in the House, where leading lawmakers have been reluctant to put more money into education because they believe school districts are holding too much money in reserve.

“We think this is great news that the House has been willing to make a big step in the Senate’s direction,” Tallman said.

But there is a hitch to the House plan.

The House takes money from the highway department to fund the increase, a move that might not be popular with Gov. Sam Brownback, who has opposed using transportation dollars to fund other state services.

State Rep. Clay Aurand, chair of the House Education Committee, said taking money from the highway department wasn’t ideal. But he had to take money from someplace because House budget rules require increases in spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere.

“It’s the only place it looked like I could get the money,” Aurand said.

The House plan puts $25 million into state base aid per pupil and commits another $25 million into compensating school districts with less property wealth so they can keep up with property-rich districts.

The Senate put $50 million into state base aid and added $27 million for so-called equalization funding for the poorer districts.

While the source of the education funding figures to be controversial, Aurand, R-Belleville, said he thought the two chambers were getting close to a consensus.

“I think our dollar amounts are getting closer together. I think that’s surely closer to compromise,” said Aurand. “We’re now on record wanting to spend $50 million on K through 12. Where it comes from will get worked out.”

Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Tuesday night she was glad to see the House moving ahead, although taking the money from highways was a non-starter.

“At least the House is beginning to loosen up about funding schools again,” Schodorf said.

Lawmakers also approved more than $5 million to help reduce the number of people with developmental and physical disabilities on waiting lists, a move intended to show some good will to federal authorities investigating the state’s long waiting lists.

House members narrowly defeated an amendment to add $8.5 million to give certain state employees a pay raise to match private-sector wages. The state was forced to end a five-year plan after just three years because of tight budgets. The amendment failed on a 59-58 vote.

Legislators are quickly approaching the session’s limit. Negotiators from the two chambers will begin meeting to work out differences. The final agreement must pass the House and Senate by Friday at the latest for the session to end on time.

Should they need to exceed the allotted time, legislators must pass a resolution authorizing the extension of the session.

Amid hours of debate Tuesday on budget, House members approved what may likely be the lone measure this year for cracking down on illegal immigration.

The House voted 84-35 to require state agencies and their contractors to screen whether their new hires are legally employable in the United States.

State agencies plus any business with a state contract worth more than $50,000 would have to enroll in E-Verify, an Internet-based program to determine the eligibility of employees to work in the United States.

Contributing: Associated Press, Brent Wistrom of The Eagle’s Topeka bureau

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