TOPEKA | Kansas legislators are considering a new proposal to satisfy the federal government's demands that the state boost spending on special education programs in public schools without undercutting Gov. Sam Brownback's effort to trim the current state budget.
House and Senate budget negotiators planned to consider the proposal today, a day after reopening talks on a bill sought by Brownback to revise the current budget. The negotiations stalled last week, and the key disagreement was about special education funding.
State officials said the U.S. Department of Education has warned Kansas that federal law requires the state to increase its special education funding by more than $26 million. Otherwise, the state faces the loss of the same amount of federal funds every year going forward.
Senators voted to add money to the current budget to cover the cost, but that action went against Brownback's efforts to reduce overall spending. The House had sided with Brownback.
During Tuesday's brief talks, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Rhoades outlined a plan to cover the special education costs by diverting funds from the state's base aid to its 289 school districts. He said House members acknowledge the special education problem needs to be resolved but see the need to cut spending as aggressively as Brownback wants.
"I'm hoping that this will be a compromise, that we can settle this part of the debate," said Rhoades, a Newton Republican.
Senators had little to say about the plan, except that they needed time to consider it. But Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Sontag-Jones said the governor endorses the proposal, having discussed it with legislative leaders Tuesday, before budget talks resumed.
"They're just shifting money from one column to another account," she said.
Brownback wants to cut $38 million in spending from the current budget, leaving cash reserves of about $35 million when the new fiscal year begins July 1. Both the savings and the reserves would roll over, helping reduce a $492 million shortfall projected for the next fiscal year.
The House's version of the budget bill met the goal. The Senate's version would have left cash reserves of less than $3 million, compared with the $5.76 billion in spending financed by state tax dollars.
But a majority of senators considered it irresponsible to risk a loss of federal special education dollars.
"We're going to negotiate — that's about all I'm going to say right now," said Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, a member of the Senate team in budget talks.