Government & Politics

Budget holds pay raise for Kansas state employees, more money for universities

The Kansas State Capitol.
The Kansas State Capitol. File photo

Thousands of state employees are on the verge of receiving their second raise in two years after going nearly a decade without one.

Kansas universities are also close to a funding boost as state lawmakers sent Gov. Jeff Colyer a budget deal that partially reverses previous cuts to higher education.

The bill, with bipartisan backing, passed the House on Thursday, 98-23. The Senate approved it a few hours later, 26-14.

The bill adds millions in spending in the next fiscal year, powered by tax collections that have improved markedly over the past year since the rollback of the 2012 tax cuts. Under the deal, Kansas is set to spend about $7 billion from its general fund in the coming year.

State employees who received a 2.5 percent raise last year will receive an additional 2.5 percent raise. Employees who received no raise last year will receive a 5 percent raise. The raises do not apply to employees at the state's public colleges and universities.

The consecutive pay raises come after many state employees went years without a statutory raise.

“Obviously, in the past few years we’ve sent the message we took our employees for granted. We weren’t staying with cost of living,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House budget committee.

All told, the raises will cost about $12.5 million, Waymaster said. The Kansas Department of Administration estimates about 13,000 employees will likely receive raises.

“This means that people are better able to provide for their families. So this is a step in the right direction,” said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.

Public colleges and universities will receive an additional $15 million next year. That reverses about 64 percent of the cut that then-Gov. Sam Brownback made to higher education funding in 2015. The institutions currently receive $24 million less than before the cut.

Undergraduate tuition at the University of Kansas has risen by 22.7 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to the Kansas Board of Regents, and by 26.7 percent at Kansas State University. At Wichita State University, undergraduate tuition has increased by more than 25 percent.

“I was encouraged by adding that back for the colleges because we’ve got to get tuition under control. I hope that will help them do that,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita.

Kansas Board of Regents spokesman Matt Keith said the funding “will help keep tuition more affordable for Kansans.”

Lawmakers approved the additional money for higher education despite concerns — and some anger — over the disclosure last month that former KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little had continued to receive a salary of more than $500,000 after stepping down.

The budget bill is not a full budget because Kansas operates on a two-year budget cycle. Still, it increases spending in several areas, including at the struggling Department for Children and Families.

The agency will receive more than $28 million more next year than what is in the currently approved budget. DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel has pleaded with lawmakers for additional funding to hire more staff and provide greater financial assistance to some foster parents.

Rep. Linda Gallagher, R-Lenexa, said she was especially pleased with $750,000 to study the feasibility of replacing the state’s child welfare information systems. She suggested out of date data systems may be harming the agency’s ability to be effective and may help contribute to the agency’s difficulty in tracking missing foster children.

“DCF has antiquated computer software systems. They have several different programs that can’t communicate with each other,” Gallagher said.

She said she was disappointed, however, that the budget doesn’t include funding for a top-to-bottom review of the agency that Meier-Hummel had been seeking.

The budget bill comes after lawmakers approved additional spending for education earlier this year after the Kansas Supreme Court found funding inadequate. The increase will be larger than $500 million once fully phased in over five years.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate's budget committee, said the budget also provides for additional investments in mental health, early childhood education and pensions.

The budget bill, combined with the school funding increase, is expected to leave Kansas with $375 million left in the bank next year. But the surplus turns negative by 2021, when a deficit of $143 million is projected.

Though it passed with strong majorities, the legislation attracted critics.

"Where's the fiscal conservative stances that everybody talks about when they're back home? They're not in this budget. Sorry," said Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe.

The sizable surplus in fiscal year 2019 follows years of budget turbulence and rounds of cuts by lawmakers and the governor. Revenue forecasts have improved, but could fall again if the economy falls into recession or the United States engages in a trade war.

“I want to be careful in how we move forward,” Waymaster said. “We could very well start ending up not meeting those expectations.”