Kansas officials calculate that state government spent nearly $505 million in federal economic stimulus funds through September, and those funds created or saved 6,531 jobs.

More than a quarter of the jobs were in highway construction, but a larger percentage belong to school district and state prison employees who might have faced deeper layoffs without stimulus funds bolstering the state budget. Almost two-thirds of the funds went into Kansas’ Medicaid program and benefits for unemployed workers.

The figures, obtained by The Associated Press from Gov. Mark Parkinson’s budget staff, have reignited an already intense debate over the value of stimulus legislation championed by President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats.

Republicans, including key legislators, believe the stimulus helped the state avoid hard budget decisions rather than jump-starting a sour economy. Backers argue the first numbers underreport jobs created or saved and perhaps no figures will give a precise picture of the benefits.

“The big picture is that the recovery act is working as intended to save and retain jobs,” said Mike Leachman, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group. “The recession would have been worse without it.”

Yet, despite the stimulus, Kansas has fewer nonfarm jobs than it did in 2008, with aviation, other manufacturing and construction especially hit hard.

Shortly after the State Budget Division posted its numbers with the federal government, the Kansas Department of Labor said the state had 59,100 fewer nonfarm jobs in September than in September 2008. The decline of 4.3 percent was the worst month-to-month comparison this year.

“Unfortunately, it is much more of a government stimulus than an economic stimulus and the bill will be left to be paid by our grandchildren,” said U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, noting that stimulus spending has helped balloon the federal budget deficit.

But the Obama administration said last week it’s unfair to draw sweeping conclusions from the initial data, because contractors and others who’ve received other stimulus data won’t report job numbers until the end of the month. Even then, the administration said, jobs activity is likely to be underestimated.

In Kansas, the stimulus created construction jobs as dollars flowed to big highway projects. The Budget Division said 1,825 such jobs were created by the end of September, though the Kansas Department of Transportation puts the figure at 2,018, more than half from improvements on a busy stretch of U.S. 69 in Overland Park.

But State Budget Division figures also show through September, more than $273 million in stimulus funds were spent on Medicaid, reimbursing health care providers for services for poor and disabled Kansans. An additional $52 million went to unemployment benefits. The total of those two — $325 million — accounted for 64 percent of stimulus spending.

The state wasn’t required to report any figures for jobs created and retained from that spending. Budget Director Duane Goossen said there’s no good way to calculate it, but such spending ripples through the economy as health care providers pay their workers and jobless Kansans buy groceries and other items.

Almost $148 million of the stimulus funds went to Kansas’ 293 school districts and state universities.

The spending on university campuses created 77 construction jobs for maintenance projects which, the state said, wouldn’t have been funded otherwise.

But the education funding largely supported existing government payrolls, mostly in school districts. The state lists 2,980 teaching and staff jobs and 144 administrative positions as being saved at public schools and universities, accounting for 48 percent of the overall jobs reported by the Budget Division.

The state counted an additional 822 jobs in the Department of Corrections as saved, because more than $9 million was spent there through September to prevent further cuts. Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said he doubts the state would have allowed such deep cuts — and perhaps forced the state to release of inmates — meaning spending would have been reduced elsewhere without stimulus funds.

Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas, said the federal government would have done better to give businesses greater tax relief, for research and equipment purchases.

“There’s no stimulus here,” Hall said. “What you’re doing here is putting life support on current government programs.”

The chairmen of the Kansas House and Senate budget committees argue that the state faces replacing the stimulus funds — or imposing the cuts it otherwise would have made this year — starting in 2011.

“If the economy really turns around, then we’ve dodged the bullet of making tough decisions,” said Senate chairman Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican. “But that’s like going to a casino and plugging your money into the one-armed bandit.”

But educators and others disagree that spending on programs and schools is what Hall called “overhead,” rather than stimulating the economy.

Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for the Wichita school district, the state’s largest, said school programs do act as a safety net for children in poverty or from stressed families. But, she said, a teacher who remains employed spends money on goods and services, just as workers in the private sector do.

And Leachman said spending on government services is a more-efficient stimulus than business tax cuts because it gives financially distressed families money to spend on goods and services, generating the demand businesses need to justify investments.

“It has this rippling effect that’s exactly what we want to have happening when the economy is in recession,” he said.