Politics & Government

Senate panel backs cut in state aid to schools

TOPEKA — A Kansas Senate panel on Tuesday endorsed most of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed cuts in aid to public schools, reflecting a loss of federal funding and tight state revenue.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee adopted a subcommittee's recommendation to reduce the base aid to Kansas' 289 school districts in the fiscal year beginning July 1. The panel followed the outline of Brownback's proposal, making minor tweaks to specific programs in an effort to blunt the effect.

"The education budget is struggling, but all budgets are struggling," said Sen. Mark Taddiken, R-Clifton.

Senators moved about $4 million around in the Department of Education budget, adding $6 back to the base per pupil. If adopted, school districts would see their base aid per student drop from $4,012 to $3,786.

The recommendation also requires that half of any new revenue the state collects in 2011 above the April forecast be dedicated to public schools.

"Given our revenue at the end of February and the prospects, it doesn't look promising there will any new revenue," said Senate Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood.

State revenue collections were off $11 million in February from what had been expected.

Vratil and two Senate colleagues resumed negotiations Tuesday with three House members to find a compromise plan to trim the current budget. The group, which had not met Monday or last week, is supposed to draft a final compromise, but the work has stalled over special-education spending.

Senators offered a new proposal to end that impasse while still meeting Brownback's goal of reducing overall spending.

The U.S. Department of Education is demanding that Kansas increase its current spending by $26 million or face losing the same amount of money each year, starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1. Brownback and legislators want to prevent the loss of federal funds, but the governor also wants to reduce the current budget.

House members had pushed a plan to divert the money to special education from schools' base state aid per student, a move senators opposed because the base aid already would be cut under Brownback's recommendations.

Senators instead proposed an accounting move — delaying a state contribution to the pension fund for teachers and government workers — to push the burden into the next fiscal year.

Senators still want to delay the pension payment, but, to deal with House members' insistence on a reduction in overall spending, they proposed a series of new cuts to both the current and next fiscal year's budgets. The biggest cut would be the elimination of $10 million in longevity bonuses for state employees in the next fiscal year.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick and her chamber's lead negotiator, said she hopes lawmakers can send the budget bill to Brownback this week.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, who is his chamber's lead negotiator, remained skeptical because senators still want to push part of the special-education funding burden into the next fiscal year.

"They made us an offer, which is great," he said.