By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers are questioning the governor’s last minute plan to spend $24 million to secure state mental hospitals in order to prohibit guns in the facilities.
State legislative budget committees rejected a last minute request from Gov. Sam Brownback (R) for the funding in order to put into place security measures before a July 1 requirement to allow concealed carry in the hospitals unless the security was in place. Lawmakers questioned the security measures the state Department of Aging and Disability Services requested and the agency waited until two months before the deadline to assemble a plan when the law has been on the books for four years.
“It wasn’t on my radar at that point,” Aging and Disability Services Secretary Tim Keck told the Senate Ways and Means Committee Friday. “I will take the blame for the timing.”
The proposal from Brownback included $975,000 to purchase metal detectors for 32 entry points at Larned State Hospital, Osawatomie State Hospital, Kansas Neurological Institute and Parsons State Hospital and Training Center. In addition, the proposal includes the purchase of gun storage lockers, metal detector wands and guns for the law enforcement officers that would staff the metal detectors. The proposal include the hiring of six full time law enforcement officers for each metal detector at the cost of $11.7 million annually.
The plan was first presented to legislative budget writers Thursday when a joint hearing on the plan caused lawmakers to question why a plan was being presented with two months to go and the costs. Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Vicki Schmidt (R-Topeka) noted Thursday that the social services budget subcommittee that she chairs has held numerous meetings on the subject of guns at state hospitals and no clear plan was presented to the panel during budget deliberations.
The KDADS plan regarding state hospitals comes as the University of Kansas Hospital and community mental health centers have sought to ban guns in their facility without putting the security measures in place. Several bills have been pending on the issue, with committees holding hearings, but no legislation has received movement in the Legislature.
During Friday’s Ways and Means Committee hearing, Keck noted that he does not have an opinion on whether concealed carry should be banned at other facilities, noting he was focused just on the ones run by his agency.
Currently guns can be banned in the hospitals if a sticker designating the area a gun free zone is placed at the door. Supporters of the concealed carry law say that the sticker does not prevent someone from bringing a gun in to the facility.
During Thursday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, the committee adopted a motion to reject Brownback’s plan, a move taken up by the Senate on Friday. The motion was supported by both Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats noting that adopting Brownback’s plan could harm a measure to ban guns at KU Hospital. The motion in the House committee was made by Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) while Senate Ways and Means Committee Ranking Minority Member Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) made the motion in her committee.
The budget panels’ move means guns could be allowed at the state hospitals on July 1 unless a new plan is developed.
Several senators questioned the need to have the new law enforcement officers be armed, asking why there needed to be more guns in the facility. Keck said the agency’s lawyers told him that in order to comply with the law this was needed. Keck noted that he is concerned about having guns in a mental hospital.
“It will make it more difficult, to me it is a safety risk,” Keck said. “They are very, very sick people and they have tried to hurt themselves. Even when they are with us, they do things to harm themselves and having a gun nearby makes it unsafe.”
Keck did assure lawmakers that patients checking into the mental health facilities would not be allowed to bring a gun with them.
Kelly told Keck that KDADS would have been helped if they had thought through a legislative strategy in advance and worked with other groups seeking exemptions for hospitals from the concealed carry law. Many of the groups have been in opposition to the Brownback Administration over the law, which was signed by Brownback.
Kelly noted that lawmakers are concerned about the possibility of the state exempting hospitals controlled by the state government from the law or paying the security bill while requiring other publicly controlled hospitals to allow guns or pay a large security bill.
“Generally the way things get done around here is advocacy groups form coalitions when they have shared interests and lobby the Legislature,” Kelly said. “You going alone is going to backfire. There are many of us who don’t want to let the state off the hook if there is no viable alternative for other groups.”