Government & Politics

Kansas lawmakers push forward with budget plans despite school finance ruling

Kansas House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey (center left), a Louisburg Republican, huddled with Appropriations Committee chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (center right), an Olathe Republican, and other lawmakers, staffers and officials to discuss budget legislation this week in Topeka.
Kansas House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey (center left), a Louisburg Republican, huddled with Appropriations Committee chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (center right), an Olathe Republican, and other lawmakers, staffers and officials to discuss budget legislation this week in Topeka. The Associated Press

Kansas lawmakers didn’t let a crucial state Supreme Court ruling slow them down this week as both chambers approved plans that plug a budget shortfall of nearly $200 million.

But Democrats called for a redo of the House and Senate budget-balancing bills. They wanted to address the court’s school finance ruling Thursday that will require tens of millions of dollars to satisfy — an additional pot of money needed before the end of June.

The Kansas high court told lawmakers that if they didn’t fix the state’s school funding inequities by June 30, public schools statewide would not open for the 2016-2017 school year.

“I don’t believe it’s time now to engage in a budget debate and not at the same time take into account the 12-ton elephant in the room,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, in the Senate chamber Thursday evening. “I think we have to acknowledge that we have an issue here that we have to deal with.”

The price to address the Thursday court ruling, the first of two in the school funding case called Gannon v. Kansas, could be $70 million this year and $38 million in 2017 according to staff estimates, Hensley said.

Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature bristled at the court’s demand — and at the idea that the decision should upend their plans to shore up the current budget and the fiscal year 2017 budget, which begins July 1. The total 2017 budget is about $16 billion.

Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman, said the call to send the budget bill back to committee and delay the debate was political grandstanding.

“There’s plenty of time left in the session,” he said.

In turning back a similar call in the House, Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and Appropriations Committee chairman, said that making needed budget repairs was the first order of business.

“That’s a reason to finish that piece today, not to move backwards,” he said.

The Senate passed its budget plan by a 24-15 vote. The bill protects payments to the state pension system through fiscal year 2017.

Delaying payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System as a way to balance the state budget was a controversial topic this week at the statehouse.

The House budget plan, which won approval Thursday by a 68-56 vote, allows Gov. Sam Brownback to suspend payments to the pension plan before July 1, provided the money is paid back in the fall with 8 percent interest. Payments could not be delayed in fiscal year 2017.

The Senate bill requires the state to make full pension system payments in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. Lawmakers from the House and Senate will negotiate a final version of the budget to be presented to both chambers.

Both plans include shifting $25 million from the state highway fund to the general fund and raising $25 million by selling the assets of the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

The amounts differ, but both bills provide additional money for struggling Osawatomie State Hospital. And both have provisions that prohibit the Brownback administration from privatizing Osawatomie and Larned state hospitals without approval from the Legislature. That idea recently surfaced at the Capitol.

The Senate plan includes pay raises for some staff in the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. The House plan provides pay increases for corrections officers at state prisons.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said that if no pay raises are in the budget this year, it will mark the eighth year in a row that classified state employees will go without increases.

“It is any wonder we’re losing our best and our brightest?” she said.

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

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