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December 21, 2013

Stivers open to boosting state education funding

FRANKFORT — Rising property values in Kentucky could ease demand for a massive infusion of state funding for education, state Senate President Robert Stivers says.

Staking out a position on an issue likely to dominate the legislative budget debate next year, the Manchester Republican said he’s open to considering an increase in the state’s share of funding for elementary and secondary education. But he stressed the need for fiscal restraint, due to other pressing needs such as the underfunded government pension system.

“We want to do the best we can to strengthen education,” he said in an interview this week.

Education leaders are pressing lawmakers to restore funding to pre-recession levels. The Department of Education has asked lawmakers for $336 million more in state funding for the two-year budget cycle that begins in July.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has warned that school districts will have to cut teachers and teaching assistants unless the General Assembly restores school funding cuts made in recent years. Funding per student has declined to $3,827 this year from $3,866 in 2009, according to the state education department. State support has fallen by more than $64 million since 2009.

Stivers said such a large infusion of state money may be unnecessary, due to the prospect of higher property values as Kentucky’s economy slowly recovers from the recession.

“When the property values go up, you have a greater tax base and therefore less contribution from the central office, being here,” Stivers said.

Local property taxes are a key funding source for schools. An increasing number of school districts across the state have maxed-out property taxes in an effort to make up for cuts in state and federal funding in recent years.

But Hiren Desai, an associate commissioner for the state education department, said that anticipated increases in property assessments would have the “ill-intended effect of shifting more of the burden of K-12 funding to the local level.”

The department will push for restoration of state funding to prevent the burden from shifting increasingly to local property taxes, Desai said in a statement Friday.

Gov. Steve Beshear said this week that he’s willing to push for unspecified budget cuts to find more money for schools.

“I am determined to reinvest in education with this upcoming budget,” the Democratic governor told reporters.

Beshear will present his two-year spending plan early next year, which will be the starting point for lawmakers in writing the budget.

“I think he will try to piece together something fairly significant for elementary and secondary education programs,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, predicted the House will support increased funding for K-12 education.

Meanwhile, a group of the state’s top economists forecast that modest growth in Kentucky’s economy will add nearly $500 million in revenue to the state’s General Fund budget by 2016. But Beshear has warned the additional cash won’t be enough to cover the needs of state government.

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