The Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. — A Senate committee Monday endorsed a $302 million plan from its Republican chairman for eliminating the state’s budget deficit, including a big cut in education funding.
The bill, which cleared the Ways and Means Committee on an 8-5 vote, would cost schools about $100 million of the state aid they have been promised for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Democrats predicted many of Kansas’ 295 districts will be forced to borrow money to cover expenses and impose property taxes to pay off the debt.
The plan was drafted by committee Chairman Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, and it includes most of the targeted spending cuts proposed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in her deficit plan. But his plan adds a 3.4 percent across-the-board cut in spending financed by general tax revenues.
The committee’s vote sent the bill to the Senate, which is scheduled to debate it at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“This is so terrible — devastating to all the programs,” said Sen. Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Republican who supported Emler’s plan. “But we have to start somewhere.”
Legislative researchers project a budget deficit of $186 million on June 30. But GOP leaders believe the shortfall will grow larger as revenues continue to fall short of expectations, leading them to seek larger changes in the budget.
Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, and House GOP leaders generally agree with Senate GOP leaders’ approach. The House Appropriations Committee plans to draft its own plan, starting this week.
Sebelius proposed a grab-bag of targeted spending cuts and accounting changes to close the shortfall. Emler’s plan rejects most of the proposed accounting changes in favor of spending cuts.
Sebelius issued a statement Monday saying she is seeking “a strategic and responsible approach” that protects vulnerable Kansans and keeps promises made in recent years to public schools.
“Instead, a majority of the Senate Ways and Means Committee members has proposed we break our commitments on school finance, slash essential services for disabled Kansans, and threaten our public safety improvements,” Sebelius said.
The committee’s three Democrats complained the cuts would devastate schools and social services and that legislators have alternatives — mainly more accounting changes — to balance the budget. They were joined by Republican Sens. Ruth Teichman, of Stafford, and Dwayne Umbarger, of Thayer.
“Anytime you rush into anything, you’re going to have to pay the price,” said Teichman, who like the Democrats wanted to delay a vote until Tuesday. “I think we do need to take the time to look at this.”
Umbarger, the committee’s former chairman, said it didn’t have an open discussion.
“It’s very closed, not very inclusive at all,” Umbarger said. “It’s not what I think our constituents expect from us.”
Sebelius proposed protecting public schools from a cut in their overall state aid of about $3.78 billion, though her plan would force the state to reallocate $22 per student among the districts. Emler’s plan cuts general state aid and aid for special education programs.
Most Republicans argue such cuts can’t be avoided because aid to schools consumes half of the state’s general tax revenues.
“What we’re trying to do is get the process going,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who supported Emler’s plan.
But Sen. Janis Lee, a Kensington Democrat, called the proposal “a sucker punch in the gut” for school districts that passed budgets based on the state’s promises of aid.
“The school districts were just beginning to believe they could trust us,” Lee said. “Now, they know we won’t love them in the morning.”
Lee also said Emler’s plan would hurt poor school districts more than wealthy ones because of how it would allocate cuts in state aid. Also, she noted, poor districts would have higher tax levies than wealthy ones if they impose special property taxes to pay off borrowing.
Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said he believes only a few districts will be forced to borrow money to cover expenses because many have emergency reserves.
“We’re cutting state aid,” Vratil said. “We’re not cutting the ability of a school district to fund its operations.”
Emler’s plan also would cut the current budgets of social services agencies by about $49 million more than Sebelius had proposed. It included language requiring agencies to seek administrative savings first and not end existing programs.
Emler said he is trying to prevent agencies from seeking cuts in high-profile services for vulnerable Kansans to pressure legislators into smaller spending reductions.
“It is totally inappropriate for an agency to cut what I call a ‘heart-string’ program,” he said.
But Democrats are skeptical that social service agencies can avoid hurting programs if Emler’s plan becomes law.
“They already will be looking at administrative cuts, operational cuts and program cuts, just because they have to,” Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City Democrat, said after the meeting. “I believe it’s irresponsible.”
The Associated Press