GOP advances budget fix it touts as protecting schools

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas House approved a budget-balancing plan early Monday morning after its Republican leaders touted it as a measure protecting public schools, even in giving GOP Gov. Sam Brownback broad discretion to cut spending across state government.

The House's 63-59 vote sent the measure to the Senate, which also was expected to vote on it early Monday morning.

The plan would require Brownback to do most of the work of erasing projected shortfalls totaling more than $290 million in the current budget and the one for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. It assumes he would follow through on plans to cut higher education spending and delay major highway projects.

The House and Senate budget negotiators who drafted the plan also anticipate Brownback would make up to $92 million in as-yet-unspecified spending cuts in the $16 billion budget for the next fiscal year. But they included a provision that said he couldn't touch state aid to public schools, more than $4 billion a year.

Top Republicans were stressing the protection for education funding. House negotiators demanded the provision, and the Senate's GOP negotiators initially resisted.

"We'd said we'd protect them," said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. The push to have the term-limited governor make the tough decisions about the budget reflects some lawmakers' frustration that he won't back away from key cuts.

The plan would delay $96 million in contributions to public employee pensions due this spring, possibly until July 2018. It also assumes Brownback will delay 25 major highway projects so that he can divert $185 million in road funds to general government programs.

The figure for unspecified cuts Brownback would make in the next fiscal year is tied to a list of potential reductions the governor's budget director, Shawn Sullivan, outlined earlier this month as a potential budget-balancing option for lawmakers to consider.

The list included $27 million in cuts to the higher education system and $51 million in cuts to social services, mostly the Medicaid program that provides health coverage for the poor and disabled. Sullivan's list also included a $57 million cut in aid to public schools, but the legislative plan rejects that.

The Kansas Supreme Court is reviewing a lawsuit filed by four of the state's 286 school districts in 2010, arguing that the state doesn't spend enough money on its public schools and distributes the money unfairly. Later this month, the justices are hearing arguments in a key part of the case — whether the state's distribution of aid remains unfair poor districts after changes made earlier this year.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the protection for education funding helps districts, but the deeper issue is the state's ongoing budget problems. He said if tax collections continue to fall short of expectation, as they have 11 of the past 12 months, then educators will worry that cuts are coming.

"There's never a guarantee," Tallman said.

Rep. Jerry Henry, of Atchison, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, predicted that Sullivan's list of other potential cuts means the coming spending reductions will hurt children, the disabled and the elderly living in nursing homes.

"It's not going to be pretty," Henry said. "They've got a lot of deep cuts to make."

Asked whether the governor would follow the list, Sullivan said Sunday that the administration is making no commitments until it sees what legislators pass. And legislators who support the plan stressed that it doesn't pin Brownback down to specific reductions.

"He has flexibility," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. "We are not pinpointing."



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