Bonds for Statehouse at issue in Kansas budget talks

TOPEKA | An ongoing renovation of the Kansas Statehouse remains a sticking point in legislative budget negotiations, but senators have scaled back a proposal for issuing additional bonds to keep up with the massive project's rising costs.

Senate and House negotiators planned to resume talks Wednesday on a $14 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The three senators and three House members still have dozens of differences between their chambers to resolve.

The Senate's version of the budget would have authorized an additional $55 million in bonds to cover what state officials hope will be the last costs associated with the renovation. The House's version didn't include any new bonds. Senate negotiators' new proposal is $34 million in bonds.

Legislators already have authorized $285 million in bonds for the renovation, which began in 2001 and is supposed to be completed in 2013. The Senate's first plan would have brought the total to $340 million; the new figure would be $319 million.

The renovation is giving the building new mechanical systems, upgrading offices and meeting rooms and restoring ornate, historic décor. The results often have been impressive, but criticism has grown because of the state's budget problems, and for some Kansans, the project has become a symbol of government extravagance in tough times.

"The Senate has taken the lead in ensuring that we complete the Capitol project as best we can, because that's what the citizens would want," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and her chamber's lead negotiator. "But at this time, with the tough economic times, there are some things on the list that probably can wait."

Senators outlined their new proposal during negotiations Tuesday. House members were receptive, though they didn't commit immediately.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican and his chamber's lead negotiator, said the new proposal probably was "as far as we could go."

The Senate's latest proposal would cover the cost of replacing the aging copper on the Statehouse's leaky roof and dome. Also, the state could finish construction already in progress in the rotunda and north wing.

Plans originally didn't include replacing the copper, only patching trouble spots, but in January, leaks inside the House chamber occurred when old, brittle roof joints let in water from melting snow. Workers later had to touch up the paint in multiple spots.

"That's a no-brainer," Rhoades said. "Fix the roof; fix the dome; finish the north wing."

But the Senate's latest proposal wouldn't finance a basement visitor's center, leaving an empty shell until state or private funds were raised. The plan also wouldn't cover landscaping for the grounds, which have been torn up by construction.

Meanwhile, the next budget will eliminate a projected shortfall that has approached $500 million. Overall spending is likely to drop between 5 and 6 percent, or by $770 million to $870 million, with much of the decrease reflecting the disappearance of federal economic stimulus funds.

General aid to public schools will be cut at least $225 per student, or 5.6 percent, which is likely to force the state's 289 school districts to consider laying off teachers and other employees later this spring.

Legislators can't wrap up their business for the year without finishing the budget. Wednesday was the 83rd day of their annual session, out of 90 scheduled.