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Senators mull cuts in education

FRANKFORT — Some state senators expressed concern Tuesday about cutting two school days to help balance Kentucky's budget, but one key lawmaker warned that cuts to education appear inevitable.

The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee began deliberations on the House's $17.5 billion, two-year budget that included a host of cuts, including axing two schools days from the calendar to save $72 million.

House Bill 290 — the executive branch budget — also includes $2.2 billion in money for school, water, sewer and road projects. However, the House left $240 million unallocated so the Senate could add additional projects.

Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, said during Tuesday's committee meeting that he had strong reservations about cutting the school year to 175 days. "The only thing that I ask is that this be the last thing that we cut," Shaughnessy said.

But budget chairman Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, warned committee members that there are few easy decisions left after the House plugged a nearly $1.2 billion hole in the budget with a variety of funds and cost-saving measures. "I will caution members that there are some very difficult decisions to be made," he said.

Leeper said after Tuesday's meeting that there was little support in the Senate for proposals that generated more than $300 million in the House's version of the budget. Those measures include the suspension of net operating loss tax deductions for businesses and the temporary acceleration of sales tax payments.

If the Senate does not approve those revenue measures, the state's K-12 education system probably will not escape cuts, Leeper said.

But Shaughnessy and others in the education community have said cutting school days sends the wrong message to federal education officials, who are weighing the state's application for a $200 million grant to improve schools.

Gov. Steve Beshear also said Tuesday that he had concerns about cutting school days. "I'm hopeful that we can find a way not to cut two days off the school calendar," Beshear said. "I think that sends the wrong message about our commitment to the education of our children."

Kentucky was recently named a finalist for the federal Race to the Top program. The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a non-profit based in Lexington, and the Kentucky Board of Education have said cutting the school year could imperil the state's application.

Senate leaders are trying to determine a time line for approving a budget, but Leeper said they hope to have it ready for a vote early next week. That means the House and Senate probably will be battling the clock in the waning days of the legislative session to get a compromise version of the two-year budget approved.

The committee did not discuss the House's capital projects plan — which includes renovating and replacing 65 schools in Democratic members' districts.

House Republicans had objected to the capital projects plan, saying the House Democratic majority was playing politics with the state's schoolchildren. But House Democrats said Republicans did not want to pay for those projects when all but one of the House's 35 Republicans voted against the $371 million revenue measure included in the House budget.

The House plan left unspent $200 million in the school projects budget and $40 million in the waste-water and sewer projects budget.

Leeper said the committee has not discussed the capital projects plan because it raised political hackles in the House, and the Senate was trying to keep politics out of budget talks.

Also Tuesday, legislative budget staff said the House's budget proposal includes a one-day delay of the last paycheck for fiscal year 2012, which will save $72 million by pushing the payment into the next biennial budget.

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