Government & Politics

Kansas House moves ahead with budget-balancing plan

Corrections officers will get pay raises, but payments to the state worker pension fund could be temporarily suspended in a budget plan approved by the Kansas House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers assembled a package of budget fixes that fills a roughly $200 million gap in the current budget and the 2017 fiscal year budget. The moves included shifting another $25 million from the state highway fund to shore up the general fund budget.

The House gave initial approval of the budget plan Wednesday by voice vote, setting up a final vote Thursday. The Senate will take up its own budget-balancing plan Thursday. The state’s total budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1, is about $16 billion.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, chided the budget plan from the Republican-dominated Legislature as “crisis management.”

Burroughs referenced Gov. Sam Brownback’s “glide path to zero,” the governor’s goal to eventually eliminate income taxes.

“We’ve put ourselves on the glide path to zero,” Burroughs said, “zero growth, zero faith in government, zero opportunity to make a difference. Kansans deserve so much better.”

But Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said the budget plan had much to recommend it.

“This bill protects our schools, KPERS and public services from across-the-board cuts,” Ryckman said.

Discussion of KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, was one of the day’s most contentious.

The bill allows Brownback to suspend payments to the state pension plan to help balance the budget before July 1 — but with conditions. The suspended payments would have to be paid back in the fall with 8 percent interest. And full payments would have to be made in 2017.

Ryckman said the KPERS provision allowed needed budget flexibility “with no impact on KPERS.” But Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, was skeptical that the safeguards were real.

“KPERS retirees have been around for a while,” Ward said. “They’ve seen shell games from the Legislature many, many times.”

The state stepped up pension payments in 2012 to strengthen the system, but years of underfunding have left it with an unfunded liability of about $9.5 billion.

Several lawmakers from Johnson and Wyandotte counties waged an effort to guarantee that Parents as Teachers would remain a free program.

Parents as Teachers provides home visits from parent educators for parents of newborns and toddlers. It’s now free, but the budget plan would allow officials who oversee children’s programs to switch it to means-tested funding.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, pleaded with legislators to keep the program “open to all,” but her amendment failed. Without a guarantee that Parents as Teachers would remain free, she said, she would vote against the budget plan.

“This is a tremendously important program to me and to those I represent,” she said.

The House bill kept many of the governor’s budget-balancing proposals but added $2.4 million to fund 2.5 percent pay raises for uniformed corrections officers.

Lawmakers said staff vacancies and high turnover rates are a dangerous situation at state prisons. Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, said the pay increase for corrections officers was reason enough to support the budget plan.

“It efficiently, prudently, realistically and responsibly restrains new spending while at the same time addresses critical needs in the area of public safety,” Rubin said.

The budget included $3 million for the Larned and Osawatomie state hospitals. Lawmakers said the money is needed to address staffing problems and to help offset the loss of Medicare reimbursements at Osawatomie.

Osawatomie lost its federal Medicare certification in December, and officials said recertification could take three to six months.

The House turned back an effort by Ward to debate expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Ward said expanding Medicaid would provide coverage for another 160,000 Kansans, but Brownback and Republican allies have strongly opposed expansion.

“This is vital to the future of Kansas,” Ward said. “Today is the day.”

But some Republicans argued that costs could become prohibitive, and lawmakers voted 85-37 against allowing a Medicaid debate.

Under the bill, the current budget would have an ending balance in June of $6 million. The ending balance for fiscal year 2017 would be about $87 million.

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld