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Kansas legislators negotiating over a $14 billion budget made progress Tuesday toward resolving differences between the House and the Senate, preserved state funding for arts programs and considered approving additional bonds for Statehouse renovations.
Three senators and three House members continued talks over the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. They had three rounds of negotiations on the 82nd day of their annual session, out of 90 scheduled -- compared to only one in the previous four days.
Leaders of each chamber's negotiating team said they're pleased by the movement they saw Tuesday, but they still have dozens of issues to resolve.
The next budget will eliminate a projected shortfall that has approached $500 million and could leave a small cushion of cash reserves. Overall spending is likely to drop between 5 and 6 percent, or by $770 million to $870 million, with much of the decrease reflecting the disappearance of federal economic stimulus funds.
Lawmakers can't wrap up their business for the year until the budget is finished. Republicans control both chambers, and some of them had hoped spending issues would be resolved by the end of the week.
"We're going to get in at least another couple of rounds tomorrow, and hopefully, we're going to be very, very close," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and her chamber's lead negotiator.
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said spending may become tangled with other issues. House Republicans also have a long list of initiatives that have faltered in the Senate, including tax cuts and restrictions on strip clubs, sex shops and other such businesses.
"If there are some policy issues we want the Senate to come to the table on, we'll probably have to hold out a little bit longer," said Rhoades, his chamber's lead negotiator.
But House Republican negotiators backed away from their chamber's endorsement of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission as a state agency. Brownback wants to replace the commission with a nonprofit foundation relying largely on private funds to support artists and local arts councils.
The Senate rejected Brownback's plan and included $689,000 in the next budget for the commission, a 14 percent cut from its current budget. The budget negotiators agreed to go with the Senate's position.
Arts advocates and groups are lobbying hard against Brownback's proposals, and they persuaded the Senate to kill an order from the governor abolishing the commission July 1.
"I think it's important to a lot of citizens across the state of Kansas," McGinn said.
Supporters of Brownback's plan argue that the state has to rethink even popular programs during difficult times and should eliminate the extra costs from having a government "middle-man" between donors and artists and arts programs. Critics say Brownback's plan would cost Kansas up to $1.2 million in federal funds -- something he disputes.
The private foundation already has formed, and many legislators expect Brownback to use his power as governor to veto individual spending items to strike the commission's funding from the budget. He hasn't made that promise publicly, but such an action would accomplish his goal and shut down the commission.
"In some ways, you can say the governor is going to have his pen out, but you can say that about every line," Rhoades said.
The Statehouse renovation has been a target of criticism from many Kansans because of its rising costs. The work began in 2001 and won't be finished until 2013, and lawmakers already have authorized $285 million in bonds.
The Senate approved another $55 million in bonds to bring the project's total cost to $340 million. House members didn't consider any new bonds.
On Tuesday, Senate negotiators proposed $34 million in new bonds -- enough to cover the replacement of aging copper in the Statehouse's still-leaky roof and dome and to complete finish construction already under way in the north wing. They'd sacrifice financing for landscaping and a basement visitor's center.
House negotiators were receptive. Rhodes described fixing the roof and dome as "a no-brainer."
The budget negotiators also agreed to trim six days from the Legislature's session next year, decreasing it to 84 days, adopting a proposal from the House to save $327,000. They also canceled a new class of 15 potential troopers at the Kansas Highway Patrol's training academy, to save $862,000, something the Senate proposed.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org