TOPEKA — In a year of budget cuts driven by tax reductions, Wichita’s National Center for Aviation Training will likely be among the losers.
House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to slice $2 million from the typical $5 million lawmakers allot to the program, which offers training in specialized skills so students can seamlessly enter the state’s cornerstone aviation industry.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, introduced the cut. He said he thinks the program can handle the reduction because the center has money left over from this budget year.
NCAT officials, however, say that money is all accounted for in their budget and money carried over is already dedicated to buying a variety of new machines to ensure students can practice on the same type of equipment they’ll see if they’re hired by Cessna or other companies.
The worker training center is among a wide variety of programs and agencies likely to get less money this year as lawmakers whittle down state spending to accommodate the big income tax reductions approved last year and proposed rate cuts for this and future years.
House and Senate negotiators are deadlocked over how much to cut overall. They expect to resume discussions Monday with the aim of reaching a compromise sometime next week.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, says she stands by Masterson’s decision.
“They (budget negotiators) have a lot of special needs to balance, and that’s a very tough decision,” she said.
A board of top aviation company executives recommends and votes on how to spend state money for NCAT — mostly on the same type of machines their companies use. Then Wichita State University manages independent bidding for equipment purchases. The equipment goes into the county-owned NCAT building, which is managed by Wichita Area Technical College.
Masterson said he hopes to fully fund the program again next year. But he said he wants to see a broad reorganization of NCAT by having the National Institute for Aviation Research manage the money while shifting control of operations to Wichita State University, instead of WATC.
WATC President Tony Kinkel said 90 percent of students who graduate from NCAT get a job or progress toward other degrees or certifications. He said the center will still be a world-class facility even through it’s poised to get less funding.
“It means we have to slow up a little bit in terms of buying the latest and best versions of the equipment that industry wants the employees to have experience on,” he said. “We’re still running fast enough to win the Olympic gold medal, we just probably won’t be able to set the world record now.”
It’s unfortunate to see a drastic reduction after a decade worth of work creating a world-class training center, said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.
“When you’re coming out of a recession, the best thing you can do is invest in the things that are going to help your economy,” she said. “NCAT is there to train our workers to provide jobs in a manufacturing region, and that is our bread and butter in south-central Kansas.”
McGinn, former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Wichita-area lawmakers have had to explain the benefits of the program to stave off cuts proposed by lawmakers from other parts of the state.
“It’s really sad that some of our own people from our region are part of this cut,” she said. “It’s very disappointing.”
Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, said he thinks NCAT is a great program and has support from the business community.
“I would like to have seen the $5 million,” he said. “But when we go down an overall budget, we’re looking at everything that’s good for the state.”
Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, said aviation manufacturing remains a major part of the state and region’s economic foundation. He doesn’t believe that the leftover money Republicans point to is reason enough to justify the cut.
“That money has been used,” he said. “It’s been invested, and some of these projects have some lead time before they come to fruition.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who represents Democrats in budget negotiations, said the cut was never justified to other lawmakers.
“I don’t think there was a lot of rational thought,” she said. “People were just looking for money anywhere they could find it, and that happened to be in somebody’s line of sight.”