A proposed $14 billion state budget being considered in the Kansas House drew bipartisan criticism Tuesday because it would withhold some education funds and push school districts to tap their cash reserves first.
Republicans who pushed the spending plan through the House Appropriations Committee defended it as a responsible budget that sticks closely to most recommendations from GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. The measure would reduce the state’s overall spending by about 4 percent, or roughly $650 million, during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But the committee made several significant changes to Brownback’s proposals before endorsing a bill containing the budget Monday night. It eliminated $29 million in new dollars for the state’s 286 school districts to cover higher-than-expected costs during the current school year, forcing districts to absorb those costs and encouraging them to dip into their reserves.
“They’ve put money back for cash-flow purposes and projects they see in the future, and they’ve tried to save for that, and we’ve said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ ” said Rep. Doug Gatewood, a Columbus Democrat who serves on the committee. “It’s a shame.”
The House is expected to debate the proposed budget Friday. The Senate Ways and Means Committee is drafting its own spending plan and could vote on it Friday. The final version of the budget will be drafted by negotiators for the two chambers.
The state commits more than $3 billion of its tax dollars, roughly half the total, to aid to public schools, but lawmakers cut base aid per pupil last year by almost 6 percent to help balance the budget, dropping it to $3,780 per student. Brownback proposes no further cut in the figure for the next fiscal year, but districts have seen both higher enrollments and more students in programs for children at risk of failing.
But many Republican legislators, particularly Brownback’s fellow conservatives, are frustrated with criticism from educators over cuts in state aid because school districts’ cash reserves have grown. As of July 2011, those reserves were more than $1.7 billion, or 38 percent higher than five years before.
“We’re trying to encourage the school districts to use what they have,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican.
Educators and legislators disagree about how much of the districts’ reserves are available for daily operating expenses.
For example, the State Department of Education doesn’t count money set aside to make bond payments, purchase equipment or provide health coverage, or most special education dollars in reserve. Taking those dollars out of the mix drops the figure of available reserves by nearly two-thirds, to $633 million.
Rep. Joann Pottorff, a Wichita Republican, said the budget assumes districts like hers, the state’s largest, can avoid cutting programs by tapping reserves that are set aside for specific purposes.
“That’s somebody’s theory – not my theory,” she said.
The House committee also altered Brownback’s proposals to remove money for longevity bonuses for state workers, which would force agencies to absorb the costs and, Rhoades said, push them to become more efficient. The committee also added a provision saying that 90 percent of the state jobs open for four months or more at the end of June would be eliminated.