Kansas House approves deficit plan; Senate next

TOPEKA | A $326 million plan for eliminating a state budget deficit won House approval Thursday, but trouble loomed for the bill in the Senate, where some members objected to its cuts in education funding.

The House vote was 70-51. The Senate expected to vote Thursday afternoon, and its decision would determine whether the measure would go to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who also has misgivings about its education cuts.

The bill rewrites the budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. A little less than half the adjustments are spending reductions, and the rest of the revisions result from accounting changes and refinancing state bonds.

Public schools would lose almost $28 million in base state aid, plus more than $4 million in funds for special education programs. Those reductions were endorsed by the House, but senators wanted to reduce base aid less than $7 million and make no cut in special education funds.

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, and their leaders said the cuts in school aid were necessary to avoid deeper cuts in other parts of the budget, including public safety and social services. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder said the plan emerging from talks between the two chambers contains "a proper mix of cuts."

"None of us want to come here today and remove funding from those programs," said Yoder, an Overland Park Republicans. "But we've got to make cuts somewhere."

Sebelius and many fellow Democrats had hoped to avoid any cuts in education funding, arguing that they'll be difficult for the state's 295 school districts to absorb. Some education officials have predicted some districts will have to borrow money to finish the school year, then impose special property taxes to pay off the debt.

"This bill bankrupts many school districts," said Rep. Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat.

Sebelius could veto the cuts in school aid and let the rest of the bill stand, and spokeswoman Beth Martino said Wednesday that the governor "remains concerned" about its education reductions.

But on Thursday, Martino said only, "We are going to take a very close look at the bill."

Legislative researchers estimate the shortfall in the current budget at $199 million, and said the bill would leave the state with cash reserves of $127 million on June 30. But many legislators believe revenues will fall short of expectations in coming months, causing any potential cushion to dwindle and even disappear.

Aid to public schools is a key issue because, at $3.79 billion, consumes half of the state's general tax revenues. Even freezing it, as Sebelius wanted, would force the state to reallocate dollars because of how costs shift among districts.