By Bryan Lowry, The Wichita Eagle, May 01, 2016
Kansas lawmakers approved a budget early Monday that will require more cuts by Gov. Sam Brownback to balance.
The House debate on the bill started a minute after midnight on Monday – after lawmakers worked through the weekend to cobble together a partial budget fix. About an hour later, the bill passed 63-59, the bare minimum for passage in the House.
The Senate passed the bill a little after 3 a.m. by a vote of 22-18 after several lawmakers who initially voted against the bill were persuaded to change their votes and send the bill to Brownback, who has agreed to sign it.
SB 249 enables the state to delay a $96 million payment to the state’s pension fund until June 2018, giving the state more flexibility to get through the current budget year, which ends in June.
Lawmakers are counting on Brownback to do the rest to ensure the state maintains a balanced budget and can pay its bills on time.
The bill includes a provision that safeguards K-12 education from cuts, a piece that was heavily touted by House leaders.
“We continued our commitment to K-12 schools,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman. “When we passed the block grant bill last session one of the things we stated was this is stable and secure funding in unsecure times. And tonight was a continuation of that commitment.”
Opponents of the bill accused lawmakers of shirking their constitutional as appropriators by leaving the bulk of the cutting to the governor.
“We as a body are just handing that to him without any knowledge of the impact to our districts,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said that she had “never seen us turn the lights off” without a balanced budget.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, brushed off this type of criticism.
“Some people said, well, you’re making him to do some stuff. Well, yeah, we are making him do some stuff…I think it’s only fair that we get him involved and he has to do some stuff,” Merrick said.
Lawmakers expect Brownback to cut $17.6 million from the state’s regents universities and to cut spending by 3 percent for most state agencies.
The impact to Wichita State University will be the loss of about $2.2 million.
The budget removes a cap on tuition the Legislature imposed on the regents last year, which means that universities could make up for the loss in state aid through a tuition increase.
Brownback has already announced plans to sweep $185 million from the state’s highway fund, which will delay 25 highway construction projects over the next three years.
Democrats panned the budget, which they say doesn’t even attempt to fix the state’s fiscal problems.
“My fear is it's going to take a decade to repair the damage we've done in the past few years," said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City.
Henry warned that the anticipated cut of around $35 million to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would harm some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens dependent on the agency’s health services.
If Brownback proceeds with the expected cuts, it’s projected that the state would have $27.4 million in cash reserves at the end of June and $81 million in reserves by the end of June 2017.
“What do I like about the budget? That it’s done,” said Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who observed the House debate.
The budget vote came on the 73rd day of the legislative session. Last year, it took 113 days for lawmakers to pass a budget fix that included a sales tax increase.
The House voted to adjourn before the Senate even began its debate, a move that Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, blasted as unprecedented and irresponsible.
Merrick, who was in the chamber observing, shrugged and said, “He bloviates a lot.”
The bill initially failed to pass in the Senate with an initial vote count of 17-22. Legislative leaders then got to work on pressuring lawmakers to change their votes, even joking about twisting arms and turning up the temperature in the room.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate budget chairman, exited the chamber with Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who voted no, to hold a meeting in the men’s room outside the Senate chamber.
When the pair returned Holmes agreed to switch his vote to yes.
"What tipped the balance is how we treated Larned this year," said Holmes, whose district includes Larned State Hospital.
The bill provides an additional $17 million in state funding for the state’s hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie over a two year period to help make up for losses in federal funding and fill gaps in staffing.
It also includes language meant to enable the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to explore privatizing the hospitals but says the agency cannot accept bids until lawmakers reconvene next year.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, also decided to switch, but said he was “not going without a pound of flesh.”
Longbine blasted legislative leaders and the governor for not addressing the state’s fiscal woes more directly, calling the highway fund sweeps and other budget moves a shell game.
"If we were a private entity I'm not so sure we wouldn't be foreclosed on,” he said.
Lawmakers moved forward with two other pieces of the budget puzzle earlier in the night, authorizing Brownback to sell off the assets of the Kansas Bioscience Authority for an estimated $25 million and enacting step therapy for Medicaid recipients, which will save the state an estimated $11 million next fiscal year.
Step therapy requires patients to try less expensive drugs first to see if they work before they can be approved for costlier treatment.
The bill will also enable live-streaming of committee hearings during next year’s legislative session, a measure that supporters say will increase transparency.