Money, money who’s got the money – Senate budget debate heats up

TOPEKA — Watching Senate budget committee discussions Friday was a little like a shell game — in the end, no one found the elusive fix.

Trying to fill an expected $186 million-plus shortfall in this year’s budget, senators cut some revenue sources tapped by the governor’s proposed budget and tried to add money to a few funds.

The tweaks and edits took the 13-member committee about five hours, but it put off the most contentious issue — education —until Tuesday.

Normally, budget discussions don’t pop up until March, when the Legislature typically debates its main budget bill. But the shortfall could grow to $1 billion in the 2010 budget if nothing is done now. So lawmakers are starting the session with talk about how to fill the gap.

Nothing raised emotions more than money for schools.

Kensington Democrat Sen. Janis Lee questioned how lawmakers would pay for $18.5 million that Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, proposed tacking onto the governor’s education number. She also worried that some are hinting at across-the-board cuts that would include education.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius maintains her budget proposal doesn’t cut K-12 education, but education officials have a different take. Both are somewhat right.

Sebelius’ proposed budget would keep money for K-12 education at $3.78 billion for K-12 education — the amount lawmakers approved in April.

However, education officials say there are more students now than when education spending was approved at $4,433 per student. As a result, there is $22 less per pupil. Normally legislators appropriate money mid-year to accommodate more students; under Sebelius’ plan, they wouldn’t.

The additional money Vratil proposed would keep the per-student spending at the level lawmakers set during the last session, he said.

But Vratil also hinted at another option — across-the-board cuts (including education) of an undetermined amount.

That upset several lawmakers on the committee.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said knowing about the across-the-board cuts, but not knowing the details, made her feel like a chess piece being maneuvered.

“I’m afraid to move because I don’t know what is coming down the pike,” she said.

Lee suggested the committee decide on K-12 funding Tuesday, so education officials could come up with numbers showing how a variety of scenarios would affect school districts.

“This is just the beginning, and it is going to get more contentious,” predicted Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee.

She sided with Kelly, saying the committee couldn’t make a decision without knowing all the plans and being able to compare them.

“There is no room to hold a secret plan in your hand, because this is too serious,” she said. “The public knows we need to make cuts, and they expect us to do a good job without politics.”