Lawmakers Advance Budget

By john Celock

The Kansas House of Representatives advanced a budget proposal Friday that lawmakers said would continue reversing budget cuts from previous years.

The House to advance a spending plan that supporters noted put more funding into social services and the Department of Corrections, along with pay raises for state employees, wrapping up a transportation plan and restoring cuts to higher education. The passage came after a marathon session that saw lawmakers strip out a provision for automatic cuts if the state Supreme Court rules for increased school funding and the rejection of adding Medicaid expansion to the proposal.

“We’re beginning to undo the damage of the last seven years,” Appropriations Committee Ranking Minority Member Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) told the House that the budget proposal contained a series of proposals that would address cuts that had come under previous budgets. This included a raise for legislative staffers and state judges, expanding a state employee pay raise package from last year’s budget, along with increased money for correctional workers in the state and funding for the state’s mental hospitals.

Waymaster noted that the bill contained provisions that would restore transportation financing and allow the state to address 23 highway projects in the state’s current long term transportation plan that have been halted due to money being shifted out of the highway fund to other parts of the budget.

The budget vote capped a day of amendments with lawmakers seeking to attach new projects to the budget. House Democrats achieved their objective of forcing a floor debate on state Medicaid expansion this year by attaching a budget amendment that would have allowed for a six-month expansion during the life of the budget bill.

Rep. Brett Parker (D-Overland Park), the amendment’s sponsor, said that the amendment would allow lawmakers to expand the program in the short term prior to a long-term expansion bill being passed. Parker noted that the House approved a Medicaid expansion bill last year – that was later vetoed by then Gov. Sam Brownback (R) – and the state Senate has supported similar legislation. House Democrats have pushed for a Medicaid expansion debate several times this year, with various attempts for an amendment being ruled not germane by the House Rules Committee.

Waymaster and other lawmakers objected to Parker’s amendment, noting that the amendment would only be in place for six months and there was no guarantee that lawmakers would vote for a permanent expansion bill next year. Waymaster said the amendment would put more uncertainty in place for state residents.

The House voted 56-66 to reject the Parker amendment.

Lawmakers passed a series of floor amendments to the budget bill including a proposal from Rep. Blake Carpenter (R-Derby) to reduce the state’s concealed carry license fee from $132.50 to $82.50. Carpenter said the amendment would continue to cover the state Bureau of Investigation’s costs for background checks and provide funds for county governments to process the applications.

Carpenter’s measure won bipartisan support, with Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Wichita) noting that a reduced fee would encourage more people to obtain the permits and the required training in a state that allows for permit less carry.

Lawmakers also removed a provision in the budget that would have canceled out additions to the budget added in by the Legislature if the state Supreme Court rules in an upcoming school finance case to add additional money for school funding. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the state’s latest school finance legislation in the coming weeks and a rejection of the law could force lawmakers into special session to meet the court’s ruling. The provision was added into the budget on Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Dave Baker (R-Buhler), the sponsor of the amendment to repeal the provision, said that the provision would shift the budget process to the court from lawmakers.

“We do the hard work here, either cut or increase taxes. We find the budgetary solutions over here not over there,” Baker said.

Waymaster said that was not the case. He said that the move would take the additions out and lawmakers would then be able to review those again and decide any restorations. He said the alternative would be for lawmakers to come back for a special session focused on budget cuts or tax hikes, starting from scratch.

Supporters of the provision said that with the budget of the Department of Education driving the entire state budget, they needed to figure out how to address a potential court ruling. They also noted that the cuts would be of additions added into the budget this year not to the base budgets.

“I am not going to be a legislator who comes back and makes those cuts,” House Social Services Budget Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) said. “Cuts that would be putting back partially what we were restoring to the most vulnerable individuals in our state all for the sake of one budget.”

The House also passed amendments that would prohibit non-disclosure agreements signed by state employees from reporting cases of sexual harassment and abuse, prohibit state funds from being used to purchase fetal tissue and expand reimbursements for emergency medical transportation.

House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told his colleagues that the bill would help the state’s transportation system and public safety network. He noted that the budget continues increased investment in the Highway Patrol and National Guard. He said the previous investments in the Highway Patrol that he has authored have increased recruitment and retention for the agency.

Claeys authored a provision in the budget that would allow for the completion of the remaining 23 highway projects in the long-term transportation plan, known as T-Works. The projects have long been delayed as funds were shifted out of the highway fund to cover budget gaps in the general fund under Brownback.

“In this bill, we reverse state highway fund dollars being transferred out for the first time since 2013 when previous administration and current administration have used the bank of KDOT,” Claeys said. “We keep the promise of T-Works. Those 23 projects are restarted.”