Archive for Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Kansas House, Senate pass budget bill; no new funding for public schools

February 17, 2016

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers on Wednesday passed and sent to Gov. Sam Brownback a budget bill that adjusts the current fiscal year’s budget and closes a projected $200 million revenue shortfall in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

But it would leave the state with a projected ending balance of only about $6 million this year, and $86 million at the end of the next fiscal year, increasing the likelihood Brownback will have to make mid-year allotment cuts after the Legislature adjourns.

The House passed the bill around noon Wednesday, 68-53. The Senate passed the bill a few hours later, 22-16.

The bill includes a proviso that imposes caps on the amount of money Kansas University can spend from tuition and other special revenue funds. The language was inserted into the bill as punishment for KU’s decision in January to issue $327 million in bonds for its Central District development project before getting legislative approval.

That language was inserted in a House committee by Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton. Although it does not stop the Central District project from going forward, Rhoades said it’s intended to send a message about the Legislature’s displeasure with KU’s actions.

The budget bill makes no changes to state funding for public schools, despite a Kansas Supreme Court ruling last week declaring the current method of distributing certain kinds of aid to school districts was inequitable and unconstitutional.

Instead, it provides $50,000 for the Legislature to hire outside counsel to give lawmakers advice as they try to grapple with the decision.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, questioned whether Republicans were preparing themselves for a constitutional showdown with the court.

“The decision has been reached,” Ward said. “Hiring legal representation is usually done when you have another appeal avenue, or you’re planning on disregarding the court’s decision and you’re going to need lawyers to keep you out of jail.”

Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, who led the House negotiating team on the bill, denied there were plans to defy the court and said the Legislature would need legal advice as it works on legislation to answer the court’s ruling. But when asked, he would not give assurances the Legislature would act this session, despite a threat by the Supreme Court to close schools in the fall if the Legislature fails to act.

“We still have to go through the (Alvarez and Marsal efficiency) study. A lot of those recommendations will make an impact on (fiscal year) 2017,” Ryckman said.

During the Senate debate, though, Sen. Anthony Hensey, D-Topeka, pointed out that the Department of Education has estimated it will cost about $70 million this year, and $38 million next year, to comply with the court’s order.

“We still have that in front of us that we’ll have to address because this budget doesn’t address it,” he said.

But Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who led the Senate negotiating team, said he believes the court did not say the state was underfunding schools, only that the money was distributed unevenly.

Republicans who supported the bill argued that it makes several positive changes, some of which were supported by Democrats.

Ryckman noted that while it allows Gov. Sam Brownback to delay one payment of state contributions into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System fund, it requires that money to be repaid within three months and prohibits any more delayed payments into the fund for the next year.

It also prohibits the governor from privatizing or outsourcing the functions of Osawatomie and Larned state hospitals without legislative approval. And it reimposes limits on the amount of bonded indebtedness the Kansas Department of Transportation can carry.

But Democrats pointed out that it also gives the governor broader authority to shift money between funds or sweep money out of special revenue funds in order prevent the state from running a deficit.

“This budget does not fix the underlying problems we have in this state,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield. “It robs Peter to pay Paul.”

Democrats in both chambers also criticized the bill’s treatment of the Parents as Teachers program, a service offered by the Department of Education that helps parents of children younger with parenting skills and with preparing their children for school.

Gov. Brownback had originally proposed shifting the funding for that program to federal welfare grants, which would mean the state would have to impose income limits for people to receive the service. The final bill, however, leaves the funding source up to the discretion of the Children’s Cabinet, which oversees spending of the state’s tobacco settlement money.

Democrats said that still leaves open the possibility that Parents as Teachers will become means tested.

With the initial budget bill now out of the way, Republican leaders are now thinking of shortening the 2016 session by working through Tuesday, Feb. 23, then taking a week off and returning March 2 when each chamber will begin considering bills that originated in the other chamber.

But the final budget bill won’t be considered until after lawmakers return from their spring break in April. By that time, budget officials will issue new, updated revenue estimates, and the final bill will have to balance with those new numbers.

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