Balancing State Budgets Is Top Priority For 1992, Survey of Lawmakers Finds

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As they continue to struggle with the effects of recession, state legislators nationwide plan to make balancing their budgets their top priority in the coming year, according to a survey conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The emphasis on eliminating deficits will make funding increases to education unlikely in 1992, suggests the report, entitled "Leaders' Outlook 1992."

On the other hand, the report notes, education is second only to a balanced budget among lawmakers and was cited by some state legislators as their primary concern.

The report, an annual project by the NCSL, solicits legislative leaders' opinions prior to the opening of their new sessions.

Lawmakers will be faced with many of the same fiscal problems with which they wrestled last year. In fact, projections indicate that many legislators may have to grapple with budget shortfalls left over from 1991, according to the survey.

"In 1991, states enacted the smallest increases in spending since the 1983 recession and generally built their budgets on the expectation of a very moderate recovery," Paul Burke, the president of NCSL said in releasing the survey last month. "But it appears that the caution behind those actions was not restrictive enough in as many as one-half of the states, where budget shortfalls are already predicted," said Mr. Burke, who is president of the Kansas Senate.

Education Funding Safest

Consequently, states will continue to look for areas from which to cut. But legislative leaders indicated in the survey that they were least likely to cut K-12 education funding.

Higher education, however, many not be as fortunate as precollegiate programs. Thirteen states noted plans to cut higher-education spending in fiscal 1992, following slight declines in fiscal 1991.

In contrast, K-12 spending increased 3.8 percent in fiscal 1991, according to the NCSL "While overall levels of education funding will remain stable, few, if any, new funds will be allocated from the budget for education programs," the report says.

Because nearly 40 percent of state budgets goes toward K-12 education, lawmakers face discretionary-spending limitations. As a result, if K-12 education is left relatively unscathed, lawmakers may be forced to raise taxes, the report acknowledges.

Even though lawmakers said they were least likely to cut education funds, schools have been affected as a result of major cuts to local aid, the budget category respondents said they were most likely to cut.

In Maryland, for example, local governments have passed on a portion of the cut in state aid to school districts.

Among education issues cited by legislators were school finance, particularly as it relates to equity; meeting the national education goals; and restructuring and reform.

Lawmakers in 18 states were considering changes in their finance formula, in large measure as an offshoot of pending or anticipated litigation. As of November, 22 states were involved in equity lawsuits, the survey found.

Legislators also acknowledged the need for major reform initiatives, while at the same time recognizing the financial constraints.

"The education reforms of the next decade cannot rely on additional funding for... success; rather, the focus must be on spending current dollars better," the report states.

Vol. 11, Issue 16, Page 35

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