By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers are slated for further discussion over a proposal to boost the state’s aviation and unmanned aerial systems staffing.
The House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to pull out a proposal from the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee to move 12 vacant staff jobs in the Department of Transportation to the KDOT Aviation Division, with six of those slots dedicated to the UAS portion of the division. Proponents of the measure said the jobs are needed to boost economic development in the aviation sector, while others questioned the need for the move. The committee will instead the discuss the proposal in further depth when the final budget proposal is crafted by the panel.
“There is economic development at stake and there are jobs at stake and we should have priorities to do that,” Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told the Appropriations Committee.
Claeys said that the proposal, which was included by committee in its recommendations for the KDOT budget, would move 12 vacant full time employee slots from elsewhere in the transportation agency to the aviation division. For the six slots dedicated to UAS, Claeys said they would be assigned to the UAS research triangle, including the development of principal investigator slots for the three universities in the triangle. The principal investigator slots would work to develop grant and economic development opportunities for the research conducted by the universities. Under the proposal the universities could request a principal investigator, which would then be funded jointly by KDOT and either the university or a local government entity.
The research triangle was developed by lawmakers last year for the UAS sector and consists of Wichita State University, Kansas State Polytechnic University and the University of Kansas. Claeys said that the investigator jobs would be partially funded by the state for the first two years and then be funded by outside grants obtained by the investigator.
“It is necessary to have our state to be a leader in an emerging industry that brings us jobs, research and development dollars,” he said.
Appropriations Committee members questioned Claeys on the need for the jobs, noting that the proposal did not come from the Department of Transportation in its budget request. Rep. Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) said that she wanted to know the exact reasons why the transportation budget panel was moving 12 jobs around that were not proposed by the agency.
Claeys said “politics” in the executive branch play a role in the development of the budget proposal and that agencies have their final budget requests vetted by the governor’s office before it is sent to the Legislature.
Claeys said that the jobs are needed given the history of aviation being a key economic sector of the state. He noted that Nebraska has more staff in its state aviation agency than Kansas does.
“It is in our interest to invest more in the first or second economic driver of our state,” he said.
Landwehr also questioned Claeys on whether the colleges wanted to the principal investigator jobs for the UAS sector. Claeys said that he had not discussed the issue with each college but had heard positive feedback from his initial conversations.
Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Erin Davis (R-Olathe) questioned Claeys on whether the local governments and colleges would be mandated to have the investigators and to pay half their salary. Claeys said the jobs are not mandatory and that local governments are just an option to pay half the salary.
Rep. Sydney Carlin (D-Manhattan), the ranking minority member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget Committee, questioned the process used for the development of the proposal. She said that if the jobs were to focus on economic development through aviation and UAS the matter should be in the Department of Commerce, which has its budget considered by her panel and not by Claeys’ panel.
“It seems to me that some of these things could have been worked out if they had gone through the Department of Commerce,” Carlin said.
Landwehr, who made the motion to pull the provision out for further discussion by the Appropriations Committee, said that she wants anyone involved in the topic to appear before the committee to provide information. She also suggested having written reports from witnesses on the aviation and UAS topic so lawmakers can study the matter before the March 14 hearing and avoid having witnesses not give all the information.
“Anyone who is touched by this proviso and language should be before us and any information they can provide in writing they should,” she said.