Politics & Government

Budget talks stall on special-ed spending in Kansas

TOPEKA — Kansas legislative negotiators made no progress this week on a bill sought by Gov. Sam Brownback to trim spending from the current budget.

The three senators and three House members who are supposed to draft a compromise budget bill didn't meet this week, and they don't have any meetings scheduled. Each chamber insists it's open to compromise but is waiting for the other chamber to make a new offer.

The key issue is covering $26 million in special-education costs. U.S. Department of Education officials have told Kansas that if it doesn't spend the money, it will lose the same amount of federal funds each year going forward.

Senators initially committed to spending the money, going against Brownback's goal to trim spending. The House initially didn't include any new special-education dollars in its version of the bill trimming the current budget.

House negotiators are now willing to spend the money on special education but want to take it out of the state's base aid to Kansas' 289 school districts. Senators have a plan to push the bill into the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Negotiations on major issues often stall when the two chambers have major disagreements, but protracted impasses are unusual for budget talks because legislative leaders usually feel some urgency to resolve spending issues. Brownback had asked legislators to put forth a budget bill before Feb 1.

"It's very disappointing," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who is her chamber's lead negotiator. "They've pretty much said all conferencing is off and we are adjourned."

The impasse creates the possibility legislators won't pass any bill to trim the current budget. Kansas law allows Brownback to make some cuts himself, but his authority is limited. Also, the federal government's demands must be addressed at some point.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said his chamber's stance on special-education funding is tied to passing a bill in line with Brownback's goals. He said House members will continue talks if there's some sign of movement from senators but, "We're waiting."

The governor wants to cut $38 million in spending from the current budget, hoping to leave cash reserves of about $35 million when the new fiscal year begins July 1. Both the savings and the reserves would roll over, helping reduce a $493 million shortfall projected for the next fiscal year.

Brownback previously has endorsed House negotiators' proposal on special-education funding, but he isn't publicly taking sides in the impasse. Spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the governor sees the bill as an effort to keep costs to taxpayers down, which he thinks will help the economy.

"Who's to blame or who gets credit is not important," Jones-Sontag said. "Getting this accomplished so we can get Kansans back to work is what matters."

The House now proposes to cover the extra special-education costs before July 1 by diverting money from the state's contributions to pensions for teachers and government workers. Then, as soon as the fiscal year begins July 1, the same amount would be diverted into the pension system from school districts' base aid.

Base aid would drop $40 per student, in addition to a cut of $232 per student Brownback already has proposed because of the state's financial problems. The base aid figure would decline from $4,012 to $3,740, a drop of almost 7 percent.

"The Senate will not go with that," said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, one of her chamber's negotiators.

Senators proposed delaying a $69 million contribution to the pension system from April 15 until after July 1. The state could then cover the special-education costs without cutting schools' other aid, and would carry reserves of $83 million into the next fiscal year.

Of course, those reserves would dwindle immediately when the state caught up to making the pension payment, and the decision could complicate budgeting for the next fiscal year.

"That doesn't help anybody," Rhoades said.