Education spending, state worker pay cap hold up Kansas budget negotiations

Kansas House and Senate negotiators resumed budget talks Thursday, reaching agreement on numerous issues that included authorizing the state to issue $202 million in bonding to construct a new federal research lab in Manhattan.

Budget negotiations had been on hold as legislators tried to broker a deal on taxes. However, Republican legislative leaders said during a meeting that they would shift focus to resolving the budget and then finalize the tax plan.

“We are prepared to meet at a very rapid pace,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.

Sticking points remained over spending for the state's higher education system and a House proposal to cap state agencies' spending on employee salaries.

The spending bill authorizes some $14.5 billion in state expenditures in each of the next two fiscal years, starting July 1.

Talks ended early Thursday evening after three rounds, but not before the Senate offered a budget provision that would block any spending of state money for the implementation of the Common Core Standards for math and reading. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, including Kansas through its State Board of Education. Kansas approved the changes in 2010.

Masterson said several House and Senate members opposed to Common Core requested the provision over concerns about the federal government setting local school district curriculum, as well as the associated costs for teacher training and new classroom materials.

Negotiators agreed to issue the additional state bonds at the request of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who says the amount will fulfill Kansas' financial obligation in partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to build the $1.15 billion National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility near Kansas State University.

The lab, slated to research dangerous animal diseases, will replace an aging facility on Plum Island, N.Y. Construction has already started, though the lab's projected cost has more than doubled since Kansas landed it in 2009. Kansas has already authorized $105 million in bonds to help finance the project.

State officials expect the lab to create more than 300 new jobs averaging more than $75,000 in salary and benefits. President Barack Obama's latest budget proposal includes $714 million for the project.

The Senate has offered to scale back from 2 percent to 1 percent its proposed cuts in funding for higher education. The House is proposing a 4 percent spending cut for public universities, community colleges and technical schools.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades rejected the Senate's higher education offer, saying that it was always known that the topic would complicate negotiations.

“The last offer wasn't to our liking. I think we're kind of at a crossroads on that,” said Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

Brownback is opposed to cutting higher education and spent two weeks in late April and early May touring Kansas to advocate for stable funding. The governor wants to keep the state sales tax rate at 6.3 percent to maintain spending levels instead of allowing the sales tax rate to drop to 5.7 percent as scheduled on July 1.

The Senate supports keeping the sales tax at the current level, though House tax negotiators have countered with a proposal to drop the rate to 6 percent.