Lawmakers Approve Budget

By John Celock

In a final act of the annual regular legislative session, Kansas lawmakers advanced a $6 billion budget Saturday after more than an hour’s debate over a $17,000 deletion.

Lawmakers easily advanced the budget Saturday after debate over whether the spending plan contained enough budget cuts and a decision by the budget conference committee to delete a $17,760 appropriation for a Topeka woman to reimburse her for funds taken from her by the Kansas Highway Patrol 20 years ago. The budget now heads to Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

“We started this process back in January and I didn’t realize we’d be standing here in June to finish it,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn (R-Sedgwick) said during Senate debate. “We had a good process and a through process.”

Senate debate focused largely on a battle between conservative and moderate Republicans over the details of the spending plan. Conservative lawmakers, led by Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) argued that the plan raised spending in the state on top of the $1.2 billion tax hike approved by lawmakers last week over Brownback’s veto.

Supporters of the budget argued that the budget delivers funding for several programs including roads, addressing federal concerns with Osawatomie State Hospital and providing for a 2.5 percent raise for state employees. McGinn, a moderate Republican, argued that conservatives did not cut spending during the four years they controlled the Legislature between 2013 and 2017, a period that also featured the 2012 tax cuts.

McGinn has long been at odds with conservative senators, who removed her from the helm of the budget committee – and the spending panel – when they took control in 2013. McGinn was restored to the post earlier this year.

The debate in the state House of Representatives focused almost exclusively on the conference committee’s decision to delete the $17,760 reimbursement for Barbara Reese, a used car dealer from Topeka, whose case has been the subject of legislative debates for over a year. Reese had been pulled over by the Highway Patrol while returning with a used car she had purchased for her lot and another individual on suspicions of drug possession. Reese, now 84, was never charged with any crime but $17,670 in cash she had on her at the time was taken by the Highway Patrol and she has become a face of the battle over civil asset forfeiture in the state.

A state judge has said that the Highway Patrol should repay the funds to Reese, but the policing agency has said they have turned the money over to the federal government and could not return it. A judge has said that the Highway Patrol does not have to repay it until the state receives the funds back from the federal government. Reese has appealed her case to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Special Claims Against the State, which has denied her claim, citing the funds being turned over to the federal government.

Last year, Rep. John Alcala (D-Topeka) offered a successful floor amendment to the annual state claims bill to repay the funds to Reese, but the funds were taken out by the state Senate, in a move unbeknownst to most House members. Earlier this month, Alcala successfully amended the budget in the House Appropriations Committee to provide Reese with the money. The amendment passed the committee 11-10 following a lengthy debate.

Alcala said that attorneys have offered Reese pro bono services to sue the state for the funds but she has declined saying that she just wants the money back and does not want to make a fuss.

“If any of you are people of principle and know right or wrong you can make your own decision,” Alcala said in the budget floor debate. “I refuse to be a bystander to the abuse of this lady and the fairness of the state of Kansas.”

A group of largely Democratic lawmakers took to the floor to argue on Reese’s behalf. They were joined by several Republicans. GOP lawmakers have previously backed Reese in the floor and committee votes. Saturday’s debate did not allow the option to amend the budget to restore the money to Reese.

“I am Barbara Reese the 84 year old woman of color who has been waiting 20 years to have $17,650 returned,” Rep. Valdenia Winn (D-Kansas City) “I will not be complicate and I will not join this highway robbery.”

Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita) argued against the Highway Patrol and civil asset forfeiture in the state, saying that the practice needed to be overhauled. She said that she believed that the state had an issue with civil asset forfeiture and could impact anyone in the state.

Rep. Vic Miller (D-Topeka) said that he blamed the budget conference committee for taking the money out of the budget.

“I will say shame, shame on the committee for this shameful exercise in arrogance,” Miller said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) said that the conference committee took out the funding to Reese due to questions raised over the process.

Appropriations Committee Ranking Minority Member Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) praised the budget as “fiscally responsible” and in particular the raise.

“With these long overdue and very modest raises, we are acknowledging the role of these state employees,” she said.