Brownback aide, GOP leaders see need to fix budget by mid-February; aid to schools an issue

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas needs to eliminate a projected $279 million shortfall in its current budget by mid-February in order to pay its bills on time, Gov. Sam Brownback's budget director and top Republican lawmakers said Wednesday.

Budget Director Shawn Sullivan said that lawmakers should approve a budget-balancing plan by Feb. 13 to head off any potential delays, most importantly next month's $174 million worth of scheduled aid payments to schools.

The state's cash situation will "get very tight" in mid-February if the current budget isn't balanced by then, Sullivan told a meeting of House Republicans. Already, Brownback has temporarily cut state contributions to pensions for teachers and government workers and proposed other steps, including selected spending cuts and diverting highway funds to general government programs.

Some Republican lawmakers also believe the chambers should consider not covering unanticipated increases in costs for aid to poor public school districts. Brownback has estimated that aid will cost the state nearly $64 million more than what lawmakers anticipated while setting the current budget last spring.

The House Appropriations Committee began hearings Wednesday on budget-balancing measures, and Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. said he expects it to pass a bill by Monday, so that the full House can debate it next week.

"We are up against it," Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said.

The state faces not only a projected shortfall in its current budget, but a $436 million gap between anticipated revenues and current spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The shortfalls arose after lawmakers, at Brownback's urging, aggressively cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy.

In the past, Kansas has delayed monthly aid payments to public schools and other bills when budget problems have caused cash crunches. But Sullivan said if a budget-balancing plan passes quickly, "We'll be fine the rest of this fiscal year."

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, added: "The quicker you get it done, the better off we'll be."

Brownback has blamed much of the shortfall on unanticipated education costs connected to the aid for poor public school districts after the Kansas Supreme Court mandated increases in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and school districts. The governor is sticking by an earlier proposal to cover the extra costs, setting total school aid at $3.7 billion under the current budget, then drop it to $3.6 billion for the next fiscal year. He's also proposing that lawmakers repeal the existing formula for distributing aid and write a new one.

Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican and House Appropriations Committee member, said forgoing the additional funds in the current budget should be an option.

"When we put this thing together last year, we didn't realize that we were going to have that $64 million hit," Lunn said.

But Rep. Jerry Henry, of Atchison, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat, said it's problematic not to cover the unanticipated costs because lawmakers were responding to a court order.


Online:

Governor's budget proposals: http://budget.ks.gov/gbr.htm

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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