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Budget gap concerns Kansas educators

By Sam Zeff | November 12, 2014

This week some dire budget predictions came out of Topeka: In the next two years, Kansas may come up $1 billion short of expenses.

But that’s in the future. Right now the state has to find $278 million.

When budget experts gathered Monday, school districts all across Kansas were watching closely.

They knew if the projected budget shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year was bad, they faced potential cuts in state funding.

Not next year but this year — money already budgeted would be lost.

"We knew years ago when these tax cuts were enacted that this moment would come where we ran out of revenue," said David Smith, chief of staff in the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

Eighty-five percent of the KCK school district's budget is salary and benefits, and those employees are under contract.

Cutting the budget, Smith said, will be difficult.

"I’m just worried about how they’re going to solve this issue and whether or not it’s going to be on the backs of our teachers and our kids," he said.

Duane Goossen was budget director for three Kansas governors: one Republican and two Democratic. Now he blogs about the Kansas budget.

"Just about everybody who gets any kind of money from the state budget needs to be nervous now," he said.

School funding is in jeopardy simply because it’s the biggest chunk of the budget, Goossen said. Fifty percent of the state’s $6.4 billion budget goes to education. Another 20 percent is for Medicaid, now called KanCare.

That’s almost impossible to significantly cut because of federal regulations and existing contracts with the three private medical providers.

So if Gov. Sam Brownback and his Republican allies in the Legislature refuse to consider increasing revenue, Goossen said bad things happen to everything else, including prisons, the Highway Patrol, health programs and simply running the government.

"Doing this whole $280 million cut and not applying it at all to schools or to Medicaid would leave a huge cut for these other programs," he said.

In fact, Goossen estimates that if the entire budget shortfall came out of that part of the budget that's not education or KanCare, all other existing programs would take an across-the-board 15 percent cut.

The revenue estimates came out Monday, so there’s no blueprint yet about what the governor and lawmakers will do.

Eileen Hawley, Brownback's spokesperson, wouldn't say if funding for schools will be cut this year. She would only say Brownback plans to close the gap primarily through efficiencies and growing the economy.

"But the state is simply going to have to live within its means the same way that families all across our state do all the time," Hawley said. "Sometimes that means some tough decisions, but we believe we'll have a plan going forward to do that."

Hawley also said the state has found $150 million in efficiencies, and departments are looking for more. So far the governor hasn't provide specifics as to where those efficiencies were discovered.

But as Democrats have pointed out, by drastically cutting income taxes Brownback has pretty much decided what the state’s means are going to be.

So now the governor has a choice: He can cut the budget himself through something called allotment, or he can wait for the Legislature to return in January and include lawmakers in the decision.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway, said she’s heard a couple of encouraging things from her conservative colleagues.

After the budget estimate came out, Senate President Susan Wagle said that she might consider raising revenue.

Conservative Republican Sen. Jim Denning from Olathe said he is against raising taxes but would think about slowing the rate of future income tax cuts.

"I think if we’re willing to look at a package that does include the tax sides of things, the revenue side of things that we have the potential for protecting our schools," Rooker said.

But there’s something else lurking in the background. A three-judge panel in Shawnee County is now considering a case about whether Kansas spends enough on K-12 education.

Using criteria approved by the state Supreme Court, that panel could come out with a decision at any time and order the Legislature to spend anything the court deems appropriate.

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