Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, introduced the successful amendment to block the governor’s changes to children's programs at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee. (Feb. 4, 2016) Bryan Lowry The Wichita Eagle
Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, introduced the successful amendment to block the governor’s changes to children's programs at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee. (Feb. 4, 2016) Bryan Lowry The Wichita Eagle

Politics & Government

Kansas House could vote on a budget as early as next week

February 04, 2016 12:00 PM

UPDATED February 04, 2016 04:41 PM

TOPEKA

The Kansas House could vote on a budget bill as early as next week after lawmakers scrapped some of the governor’s proposed changes to children’s programs Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would close the state’s budget gap for the current and next fiscal year, which begins in July, and provide more money for public safety and public health than Gov. Sam Brownback initially proposed.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said that it was “a real possibility” that House would vote on the legislation on the legislation next week.

The committee stuck both the 2016 and 2017 budget bills into SB 161. If the bill passes, as approved by the committee, the state would have $6 million left in its general fund at the end of June 2016 when the current fiscal year ends.

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The state would leave the next fiscal year with $87 million left in its coffers, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Research Department. The budget spends $16.1 billion in the 2017 fiscal year when all funding sources, including federal money is counted.

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the committee’s chair, said moving quickly on the budget fixes for this and next year would free up lawmakers to spend more time to study and craft legislation to enact the efficiency recommendations that were submitted to the Legislature in January by a private consulting firm. Those recommendations could save the state an estimated $2 billion over five years.

The tweaked bill would safeguard $50.6 million earmarked children’s programs, which the governor planned to sweep into the state’s general fund.

The committee voted unanimously to approve an amendment from Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, to block the governor’s proposed sweep of the Children’s Initiatives Fund, a pool of money that funds Early Head Start and other childhood programs.

The governor’s office had emphasized that childhood programs would still be fully funded under the governor’s plan, but children’s advocates said that removing the earmark would endanger the money if the state faced dips in revenue later in the year – as it has the past two years.

Hutton said that the amendment would protect those funds “from the fire,” noting that a recent efficiency study highlighted the Children’s Initiatives Fund as one of the state’s most transparent and efficient uses of money.

“It’s doing well,” Hutton said. “I could see no viable reason to take it through the state general fund where it could be subject to other appropriations and other moves.”

Hutton’s amendment would still allow $7.2 million sweep of the earmarked money into the general fund to take place, but it would offset that with federal money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant.

Budget director Shawn Sullivan would not comment when asked about the committee’s decision to scrap the governor’s plan. The governor’s office later said in an e-mail that “The Governor looks forward to reviewing a final budget once it has been passed by both the House and Senate.”

The committee also approved other tweaks to the governor’s budget, including a 2.5 percent pay raise for corrections officers, which will cost the state an additional $2.4 million in the 2017 fiscal year.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, the lawmaker who brought the proposal, cited the Department of Corrections’ 30 percent turnover rate as a reason to adopt the plan.

The committee also sought to address turnover rates at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation by approving an amendment, which will allow the law enforcement agency to fund pay raises for its agents through cost savings in its budget. KBI agents currently have a starting salary that is $26,000 below the national median wage for investigators.

The committee approved an extra $3 million in funding for the state’s hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie for the current year. The additional money will help offset the $1 million a month the state stands to lose after Osawatomie State Hospital lost its federal Medicare certification in December over safety concerns identified by federal investigators.

A proposal to give another $378,000 in funding to the state’s primary medical care centers also won approval.

Rep. Amanda Grosserode, R-Lenexa, said she was uncomfortable with the fact the state is potentially facing a budget shortfall “and yet we’ve had add after add after add” to spending.

Ryckman reminded the committee that it had yet to undertake the hard work of the session, which would be enacting the long term budget efficiencies.

The committee did approve a few measures to create short-term budget savings. It approved an amendment, which will empower the governor to make targeted budget cuts instead of across the board cuts and also to defer payments to the state’s pension system in 2016 if the state faces a shortfall. The state would be required to make up those deferred payments the following year.

The committee also approved a plan to suspend payments to the state employees’ death and disability fund for the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year, which would save $37.5 million.

These moves were condemned by the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union which represents state employees.

“I just think it’s very, very concerning when instead of looking at the real problem, which is the greatly reduced revenue stream, you try to cut benefits for those who have become disabled or their surviving family members,” said Rebecca Proctor, the union’s executive director.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3