Politics & Government

State may face federal penalty over special-ed funding

TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback's budget director said Wednesday that the state may have to spend far more on special education to avoid a federal penalty, complicating budget negotiations that began with lawmakers split on whether to pay the costs.

Three senators and three House members had their first talks over the final version of a bill designed to trim overall spending from the current budget. Brownback is pushing for reductions so that the state can use the savings to help close a projected $492 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Senate doesn't want to trim as much as Brownback initially proposed or the House advocated in its version of the bill. The Senate's version commits to an additional $26 million for special education.

Senators who support the extra spending argue it is necessary to prevent the U.S. Department of Education from cutting Kansas' allotment of federal funds. House members haven't conceded the point.

The debate became more complicated when State Budget Director Steve Anderson said during a presentation to the state Board of Regents that the cost of avoiding a federal penalty could be as high as $61 million.

Anderson stressed after his presentation that state officials might not know until September how much the state would have to spend.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who is her chamber's lead negotiator on the budget bill, winced when told of Anderson's comments.

"We hadn't heard that number," she acknowledged.

Brownback wants to leave the state with a cushion of $35 million going into the next fiscal year. The House's version of the bill provides a slightly larger cushion.

The House agreed with Brownback's proposal to cut schools' base state aid per student by $75, or about 2 percent, from $4,012 to $3,937.

The Senate's version of the bill would leave a cushion of less than $4 million and cut base state aid less, by $66 per student, to $3,946, according to legislative researchers.

McGinn said she's not surprised by House members' desire to stick by their version of the bill but added, "I hope that they're open to a process that respects the fact that we represent districts back home."