The Kansas Legislature will reconvene Monday, and several northwest Kansas representatives agree they more than have their work cut out for them.
Funding for public K-12 education is expected to be a high priority, especially after the Kansas Supreme Court again ruled last fall current spending levels are inadequate. But finding the money to bolster the state’s education system won’t be easy, said Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland.
“In order to put additional funds in schools, we’d have to do across the board cuts,” he said last week. “And across the board cuts are not easy and it makes it very difficult on our agencies. … For instance Corrections, if we cut those folks the 18 percent that we’d be required, we’d have to close three prisons and release a lot of felons. I don’t think we can do that.”
If the state opted to spare certain agencies — such as Corrections — then other agencies could be handed even deeper cuts to make up for that, he said, acknowledging many state agencies already are suffering under the strain of previous funding reductions.
“It would be devastating,” Billinger said. “We have so many challenges now trying to hire guards at the prisons because of our salaries. We’ve tried to bump that up, but it’s a tough job to hire folks. And mental health — there are so many things that are being passed on.”
Billinger said KPERS also will need to be addressed since the state postponed a fourth-quarter payment due to a shortage of funds. The state has made “some really good strides” since 2011, he said, when the state program was close to bankruptcy.
“It seems like everytime there’s a shortage of money, we make postponements to those payments,” said Billinger, who is vice chair of the Senate Financial Institutions and Insurance and Ways and Means committees. “For instance, postponing the fourth-quarter payment for three years, which is what the governor had proposed, would cost us $1.6 billion. No way I can support anything like that.”
Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, said he has a slightly more optimistic outlook for the upcoming legislative session. He said he has yet to hear an official, specific school funding mandate. He also is hopeful school funding could be restored in increments during the next few years.
But the main reason for Phelps’ optimism is the fact state revenues have been exceeding expectations for several consecutive months — a fact he directly relates to the Legislature’s decision last summer to override a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback and roll back previous income tax cuts.
“This is all a result of our actions that we took at the end of the 2016 session,” Phelps said. “I don’t want to say we’re in, as I say, tall cotton, but the finances are looking a bit better.
“… I try to just paint a little bit more positive picture about our state finances. It’s not as good as we’d like it to be, but at the same time, I think things will kind of straighten out a little bit. We’re getting on a little bit more solid footing.”
Phelps also said he thinks there could be another attempt to expand the state’s Medicaid program, which would be expected to benefit rural hospitals. A House attempt to override Brownback and expand the program fell short last session.
“It’s no secret that our state has actually lost out on over $2 billion,” Phelps said. “To me, it’s inevitable that we have to do that.”
Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, has said he thinks “accountability” will be a key theme in the upcoming session, as legislators will face the results of previous spending cuts. Both he and Billinger have spoken against any further tax increases.
Rahjes also has said there are positive indications the overall state economy is moving, though maybe not “in your own backyard right now.” And while revenues are improving, he said it’s important the Legislature refrains from spending money before it comes in.
“The top priority is going to be K-12, addressing what the court wants to address,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen until late in the session though, so that will be the cover of everything. As I’ve talked with leadership in the House, there are other issues that have not been properly taken care of.”