Senate bill would help Kansas fund education

With Kansas relying on federal money to prop up its budget, the governor praised the U.S. Senate for passing a bill Thursday that could inject $179.1 million into state coffers.

Of that amount, $92 million would go to the state's school districts to help save teachers' jobs. The remaining $87.1 million would enhance the federal match for Medicaid; legislators included that amount and more in the budget they passed last spring.

"I am grateful that a majority of senators were able to set aside politics and vote for this critical assistance for Kansas," Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, said in a statement. "These funds will not only allow us to keep our budget in balance, but prevent thousands of teacher lay-offs."

The Senate approved the $26.1 billion package 61-39. Kansas Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts voted against it.

Thursday's vote was a hard-earned but partial victory for Democrats and President Obama. Advocates said it could save the jobs of up to 300,000 teachers, police and other public workers nationwide.

The measure would provide another $16 billion to help states fund their Medicaid budgets — freeing money for other budget priorities such as avoiding tax increases and preserving the jobs of state employees. About three-fifths of state governments, including Kansas, have already factored in the federal help when drawing up budgets for the ongoing fiscal year.

Republicans blasted the measure as a rerun of last year's economic stimulus bill, which has earned

poor reviews among many voters as unemployment hovers near 10 percent nationwide. They called it a giveaway to public employee unions, a key Democratic constituency, just three months before the midterm elections.

Budget relief

The legislation is headed back to the House, where Democratic leaders have scheduled a Tuesday vote to approve it and send it on to the White House.

If the bill wins final approval as expected, some $10 billion in aid would flow to school districts nationwide in hopes of reversing the layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers.

The vote caps months of effort by governors of both parties, public employee unions and others seeking to extend programs enacted in last year's economic stimulus law. That measure provided budget relief to states and local school districts hurt by slumping tax revenue as the U.S. economy has struggled to emerge from recession.

It's significantly less generous than both a version enacted last year and one passed months ago that stalled amid increasing worries about the budget deficit.

It's too soon to say what the additional education spending would mean for the Wichita school district, spokeswoman Susan Arensman said.

But she added, "It's a positive step."

Wichita schools had to make $14 million in cuts for the 2010-11 academic year. That resulted in dropping driver's education, closing Metro Midtown Alternative High School and eliminating 117 positions.

When they passed the state's $13.7 billion budget last spring, Kansas legislators thought the state would be receiving $130 million in additional Medicaid money from Congress. The latest version of the bill, however, reduces Kansas' slice to a projected $87.1 million.

Enhanced Medicaid funding was first made available in the 2009 economic recovery act but is scheduled to expire in December. The Senate bill package would extend aid through June 2011.

GOP opposition

Brownback was criticized by state Sen. Tom Holland, his Democratic opponent in the governor's race, for not supporting the legislation. Holland said Brownback was putting the state budget at risk.

Brownback said he is against a plan that includes extra Medicaid dollars for states because it wasn't drafted in a fiscally responsible way.

The GOP senator has said he'll support the extra Medicaid funding if Congress offsets the costs elsewhere so the federal debt doesn't rise. The latest version contains such offsets, but Republicans see it as deeply flawed.

Holland declared Thursday that Brownback is "out of excuses" for not supporting the legislation.

But Brownback, like many Republicans, has a long list of objections to the Medicaid legislation. Among other reasons, it rewrites tax laws and trims spending from military procurement and construction budgets.

Brownback said the legislation relied on "accounting gimmicks" and questionable offsets to its extra spending.

The bill does tap some federal stimulus funds. Brownback argues that all the extra Medicaid spending — and extra education funds in the bill — could be covered by existing federal stimulus dollars.

"With our debt out of control, we need to be fiscally responsible," he said in a statement Thursday.