Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled budget revisions Thursday that would partly restore higher-education cuts, replace a vetoed spending plan for Corrections, and begin to phase in all-day kindergarten statewide.
The proposed changes to a two-year spending plan adopted last year call for spending $30.7 million more this fiscal year and $429.8 million more for fiscal 2015. That large increase is caused by a $362.9 million appropriation for the Corrections Department, which had a budget of zero after the governor’s veto last session.
Still some legislators paused upon seeing the number. “That’s a pretty big number for 2015,” said Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which was brief on the proposal Thursday.
Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, another member of the committee, wasn’t bothered. “We deal with big numbers all the time,” he said.
And Democrats questioned whether the state could afford the increases, given the effect tax cuts could have on state revenues.
Senate Majority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, pointed to April 2013 projections by the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department that say the state could face a $213.6 million budget shortfall by 2017 unless it cuts spending or collects more revenue.
“It’s based on faulty numbers,” he said. “The math just does not add up. And if you run the projection on the basis of five years it leads to bankrupting the state. That’s what his legacy will be.”
Sara Belfry, the governor’s spokesman, dismissed Hensley’s criticism in an e-mail: “It is impossible to accurately predict state revenues so far into the future. Some have claimed over and over again the Governor’s budgets have been unsustainable and time and time again their dire predictions have been proven wrong.”
Secretary of Revenue Nick Jordan told the Ways and Means Committee that tax cuts had put more money both in Kansans’ pockets and in the state’s coffers by stimulating the economy. “I think we’re in good shape,” he said.
Hensley termed that spin and accused the budget of being cynical, calling a 1.5 percent increase for classified state employees an election-year tactic.
Although the governor emphasized the importance of supporting higher education in his State of the State address, he chose to restore just part of the cuts the Legislature made to university budgets in 2013.
Lawmakers had cut general fund support for universities by 1.5 percent and instituted a salary cap.
Brownback’s budget offers $5.2 million to undo the salary cap that universities said would hurt their ability to recruit professors. Wichita State University will see an additional $281,267 in the current fiscal year, 2014, and another $14,755 in 2015.
WSU President John Bardo called the additions “a step in the right direction.”
Rather than fund higher education as a lump sum, the governor’s office chose to highlight specific programs at universities, said Jon Hummel, interim budget director.
The budget calls for $2 million for Wichita State University to build a “technology transfer and experiential learning facility” – the first step in what Bardo has pitch as a plan for an “innovation campus.”
The facility will be designed to help bring ideas from the university’s students and faculty out of the classroom and into the marketplace, he said.
Bardo said the university did not get everything it sought with the budget.
“But the question is, does it help us move the puck down the ice?” Yes, he said.
One Wichita institution fared less well: The governor did not restore $2 million in cuts for the National Center for Aviation Training, something many Sedgwick County legislators had sought.
Belfry explained in an e-mail:
“While Governor Brownback did not include an additional appropriation for NCAT, he remains committed to the program and would support any additional funding the Legislature recommends.”
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, went into the day confident that the proposal would restore NCAT funding. Despite the omission, he remained confident that would still happen this session.
“It’s a large budget. I’m sure a few things are overlooked at times, but I don’t think we could question the governor’s commitment to NCAT or NIAR or any of the south-central issues,” O’Donnell said. “I look forward to getting that reinstated.”
Ways and Means Chairman Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, suggested that he’d like to see NCAT’s funding increased but combined with that of the National Institute for Aviation Research to give greater flexibility on how money is used.
Brownback proposed spending 1.8 percent more on Corrections for fiscal 2015. He had vetoed that budget to protest what he considered inadequate funding.
The proposed Corrections budget includes a $2 million increase for offender programs that help combat recidivism.
“That’s the key to keeping them from coming back (to prison), is to get them engaged in the community as law-abiding taxpayers,” Hutton said.
The governor’s budget addresses projected shortfalls for education funding – caused by higher than expected enrollment – providing a $17.8 million increase for fiscal year 2014 and a $20 million increase for fiscal 2015.
It also calls for $16.3 million in 2015 to begin to phase in the all-day kindergarten proposal Brownback touted in Wednesday’s State of the State address.
Initial support among some Republicans has been mild.
Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita, said Wednesday he would support the plan if it did not adversely affect other areas of the budget, especially Corrections.
“We have to look at it to see how much money we have to mess with. I support all-day kindergarten if we can afford it,” he said Wednesday evening. “If we can’t afford it then we have a problem.”
“Are we going to not hire more guards for our prisons that are asking us and begging us for more people?” he added.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was more enthusiastic.
“I certainly support the goal. I’m a former school teacher and I do believe that money earmarked for younger children helps with long-term outcomes. There’s no question about that,” Wagle said moments after the governor concluded the State of the State address.
She suggested that the Legislature might consider rewriting the base state aid formula to include funding for all-day kindergarten.