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Kansas Senate Committee Advances Budget Plan That Cuts Education And Other Services

Stephen Koranda
KPR/File photo

A Kansas Senate committee has advanced a budget plan that would cut education spending significantly to help balance the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June. The state faces a budget shortfall of more than $300 million in the current year.

Republican Senate leaders say it's part of long-term plan to get the state budget on solid financial footing. Critics say it would mean major cuts to education with just months left in the fiscal year.

K-12 education in Kansas would take the biggest cut at 5 percent, which is more than $125 million. Higher education would take a cut of $22 million.

The Senate’s majority leader, Republican Jim Denning, says there isn’t enough time left in the fiscal year for some options, like tax increases. That leaves choices such as cuts and borrowing from other state funds.

He says they've tried to protect schools from cuts in recent years, but now they need to create savings that can't be sustained just by other programs.

“We needed the education community to share in the cuts this go around,” Denning says. “We need them to help us get through this shortfall.”

The proposal would cut some other state agencies between 1 and 3 percent. The reductions total more than $150 million. That alone won't erase the current budget year's shortfall. The state faces another budget deficit next fiscal year of around $550 million.

Republican Senate President Susan Wagle says the cuts, coupled with a tax increase proposal in the Senate, would give the state a long-term, sustainable budget solution. She says Governor Sam Brownback's budget proposal uses too much one-time money and could lead to further problems down the road.

Wagle has a message for schools: lawmakers are looking for a path to a new school funding system to replace the block grants the state is currently using.

“If a cut passes, and a tax package passes that gives us stability, we will write a new formula. We will give them predictability and stability for the future,” Wagle says.

Republican Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine says if the tax and budget package comes together, they could look at restoring education funds in fiscal year 2018 and 2019. However, he says a new funding formula may redistribute the money.

“I think the cut as a whole will get restored, but I can’t tell you by individual districts who the winners and losers are going to be,” Longbine says.

School districts have bristled at the idea of the cut. There's already an ongoing lawsuit in Kansas over school funding, and one of the attorneys in the suit told the AP that the idea is "tremendously ill-advised."

"That's moving the ball the wrong way down the field," attorney John Robb says.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley is blasting the budget plan, saying it’s irresponsible to impose such deep cuts halfway through the fiscal year.

“They have five months and now they’re going to have to scramble around and figure out how they’re going to fund their budgets because the Senate Ways and Means Committee basically took the cowards’ way out,” says Hensley, the Senate's top Democrat.

Hensley says the cuts could be avoided by following Governor Sam Brownback’s recommendation to liquidate a $300 million state investment fund.

The Senate is planning to vote Thursday on both the spending cuts and a revenue bill that would repeal the income tax exemption given to more than 300,000 business owners.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Radio covering health, education and politics.