Politics & Government

Lawmakers make progress on Kansas budget

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators negotiating a $14 billion budget made progress Tuesday toward resolving differences between the House and the Senate, and preserved state funding for arts programs. They also considered approving additional bonds for Statehouse renovations.

Three senators and three House members continued talks over the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Leaders of each chamber's negotiating team said they're pleased by the movement they saw Tuesday, but still have dozens of issues to resolve.

The next budget will eliminate a projected shortfall that has approached $500 million and could leave a small cushion of cash reserves. Overall spending is likely to drop between 5 and 6 percent, or by $770 million to $870 million. Much of the decrease reflects the disappearance of federal economic stimulus funds.

Lawmakers can't wrap up their business for the year until the budget is finished. Republicans control both chambers, and some of them had hoped spending issues would be resolved by the end of the week.

"We're going to get in at least another couple of rounds tomorrow, and hopefully, we're going to be very, very close," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who is her chamber's lead negotiator.

But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said spending may become tangled with other issues. House Republicans also have a long list of initiatives that have faltered in the Senate, including tax cuts and restrictions on strip clubs, sex shops and other such businesses.

"If there are some policy issues we want the Senate to come to the table on, we'll probably have to hold out a little bit longer," said Rhoades, his chamber's lead negotiator.

House negotiators backed away from their chamber's endorsement of Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission as a state agency. Brownback wants to replace the commission with a nonprofit foundation.

The Senate rejected Brownback's plan and included $689,000 in the next budget for the commission, a 14 percent cut from its current budget. The budget negotiators agreed to go with the Senate's position.

Arts advocates and groups are lobbying hard against Brownback's proposals.

"I think it's important to a lot of citizens across the state of Kansas," McGinn said.

The private foundation already has formed, and many legislators expect Brownback to use his veto power to strike the commission's funding from the budget.

"In some ways, you can say the governor is going to have his pen out, but you can say that about every line," Rhoades said.

The Statehouse renovation has been a target of criticism from many Kansans because of its rising costs. The work began in 2001 and won't be finished until 2013, and lawmakers already have authorized $285 million in bonds.

The Senate approved another $55 million in bonds to bring the project's total cost to $340 million. House members didn't consider any new bonds.

On Tuesday, Senate negotiators proposed $34 million in new bonds — enough to cover the replacement of aging copper in the Statehouse's still-leaky roof and dome, and to finish construction in the north wing. They'd sacrifice financing for landscaping and a basement visitor's center.

House negotiators were receptive. Rhodes described fixing the roof and dome as "a no-brainer."

The budget negotiators also agreed to trim six days from the Legislature's session next year, decreasing it to 84 days, adopting a proposal from the House to save $327,000. They also canceled a new class of 15 potential troopers at the Kansas Highway Patrol's training academy, to save $862,000, something the Senate proposed.

Among issues still to be resolved is $5 million in funding for the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program. The state has budgeted that amount for affordable air service in Wichita since 2006. The five-year commitment ends this year, and Gov. Sam Brownback has recommended the funding continue.