TOPEKA — Where some see the future of Wichita’s aviation industry, some lawmakers see leftover money that could help accommodate tax cuts.
Wichita’s National Center for Aviation Training, which helps provide the aviation sector with work-ready applicants, is poised to lose $2 million of the $5 million it typically gets from the state under a plan House and Senate budget negotiators have tentatively agreed upon.
The proposed cut comes in part from pressure to reduce spending after income tax cuts and in part because NCAT still has $2.9 million left to spend from this year’s state funding.
NCAT officials say they plan to use the remaining money by July to buy equipment, such as 3D printers and robotic simulators, to help train the next generation of aviation manufacturing workers.
“We have to prepare educated trained workforce for the Wichita area or basically the manufacturing and aviation jobs won’t be here anymore,” said Kent Irick, dean of aviation at NCAT. “It’s just that plain and simple.”
Republican budget leaders say they agree NCAT is important, but they’ve been targeting unspent money in programs throughout the state.
“We understood them to have some carryover, so we thought they could handle a $2 million haircut for one year,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover.
Gov. Sam Brownback said he stands ready to defend money for technical education, which is growing rapidly at tech schools statewide after he signed into law new incentive programs last year.
“I was just recruiting a company the other day,” he said Wednesday. “A good portion of why they’re looking at coming to Kansas is the number of tech trained people in the aviation industry that we have that a lot of places don’t. These are high skill spots. You just don’t hire somebody and say ‘We can teach you everything to know on in the first few weeks on the job.’ You need to know what you’re doing with this.”
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, helped prevent cuts to another Wichita aviation center, the National Institute for Aviation Research, during earlier budget debates. NCAT’s unspent money may justify the reduction, he said, but lawmakers should keep funding the program.
“If we take it completely out of the budget this year, the odds of it getting reinstalled next year would be very difficult,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, say NCAT is an example of cuts that are affecting many programs after the Legislature eliminated income taxes for businesses and reducing income taxes for individuals.
Many of the Legislature’s newer members are questioning programs they aren’t very familiar with, said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka.
“I think the approach that they take is, ‘Well, let’s cut them, and they’ll respond and tell us what we want to know,’” she said.
“What we’re seeing is not only cutting budgets, but we’re seeing a huge transfer of fund balances,” Kelly said, noting about $103 million worth of shifts across the state’s budget. Lawmakers haven’t taken enough time to investigate what the consequences of those shifts may be, she added.
In recent years, NCAT has spent all but about $200,000 of its annual $5 million on equipment for students to practice on and instructors, according to figures provided by Tony Kinkel, president of Wichita Area Technical College, which houses NCAT.
The leftover money provides a buffer in case the new equipment approved by NCAT’s board and bought under state purchasing rules costs more than expected, Kinkel said.
The program has about $2.9 million left to spend this budget year. It plans to spend the money on equipment including a heavy-duty sheet metal shear, an airplane tug to train workers how to move planes around in a factory, specialized painting booths and a GPS simulator.
Mike Edwards, the dean of manufacturing at NCAT, said students have access to one 3D printer that converts computer-designed images into products.
NCAT plans to buy a more advanced printer, similar to those used at local aviation companies, that can print out hard plastics and rubber to create a variety of products, such as the plastic and rubber cases many people use to protect their smart phones.
Kinkel praised lawmakers for prior funding commitments and for approving incentives to get more high school students and residents into tech training programs.
“They’ve done a yeoman’s work in moving colleges forward,” he said.
The proposed $2 million cut wouldn’t sink NCAT, he said.
“We’re going to live with whatever they give us,” he said.
But he said the cuts could start eroding the center’s ability to be a premier aviation training program.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who headed the Senate budget panel last year, said NCAT is key to the state and to Wichita.
“We have a star facility. It has a 98 percent (job) placement rating on the students that go there,” she said. “I don’t know why you would cut something that has so much success.”