TOPEKA —The House on Friday voted to advance a budget bill after stripping a provision that would have lapsed most of the scheduled funding increases in the event of an unfavorable court ruling over school finance.
Representatives returned Saturday morning with plans to tackle a tax bill and fix an $80 million error in public school legislation passed earlier this month.
Lawmakers remain wary of the political ramifications of a special session that will be needed if the Kansas Supreme Court decides the new school funding law is unconstitutional. The Legislature responded to the high court’s mandate to provide adequate and equitable funding by passing a plan to phase in about $525 million in increases over the next five years.
If the court isn’t satisfied, lawmakers may need to offset additional funding with a tax increase or budget cuts. Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, inserted the budget trigger as a way of framing any adjustments during a special session as enhancements. Her idea was to start over on the budget, dividing leftover cash after the dust settles on litigation.
She defended the proposal in a Friday morning meeting with House Republicans, calling it a “humane” approach for state agencies that otherwise might be counting on the money appropriated to them.
“That is a lot more responsible because it tells all these agencies out there just be very, very careful with what you do with your budgets,” Landwehr said.
When the full House took up the debate Friday afternoon, Rep. Steven Becker, a Republican from Buhler, introduced an amendment to remove the potential funding lapse. Landwehr’s proposal would have the effect of giving Supreme Court justices the power to make budget cuts, he said.
Referencing the location of the judicial building south of the Statehouse, Becker asked which side of the street holds the purse and how long the purse strings reach.
“We do the hard work,” Becker said. “Either cut or increase taxes or find the budget solutions over here, not over there.”
Landwehr cautioned lawmakers to consider the political mailers that will flow into their districts, calling attention to the cuts they will need to make to offset escalating school finance costs. She scolded lawmakers who were laughing as she spoke.
“How many of you are going to be willing to sit there and take that postcard that says representative so-and-so cut mental health, representative so-and-so cut foster care, representative so-and-so cut money from the frail and elderly, representative so-and-so did not make the KPERS payment for our state employees,” Landwehr said. “You think it’s funny? It’s not funny. I’ve been there, guys. You think the postcards are funny? They’re not funny. This is serious stuff that we deal with.”
Representatives voted 71-53 to eliminate Landwehr’s proposal.
They debated various amendments to the more than $16 billion spending package over the course of six hours before giving first-round approval to the bill. Included are pay raises for judicial branch employees and restoration of $12 million to state university budgets.
For fiscal year 2019, the bill provides a full payment of $194 million to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, rather than the $82 million proposed by Gov. Jeff Colyer. Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said the state will save about $200 million in interest by paying sooner.
Among the proposals to surface during the debate was a failed attempt by Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, to expand Medicaid in Kansas.
Proponents of expanding eligibility for KanCare say it will bring in matching federal funds, ease budget pressure on medical providers and provide care for those who need it.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said enrollment has exceeded expectations in other states that expanded Medicaid, and he cautioned that the federal government eventually may rescind matching funds.
Lawmakers should “give it a shot,” said Rep. Diana Dierks, R-Salina, and let people know they are willing to stick their necks out.
“I am standing here before you today to say let’s vote on this, let’s pass it, let’s see what happens,” Dierks said.
Her remarks invited a comparison to similar arguments for 2012 tax cuts that proved disastrous to the state’s budget.
“That is very dire language to say in regards to legislation,” Waymaster said. “We’ve heard that before, and usually, the consequences have not been great.”
The expansion attempt failed on a 56-66 vote.
Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, secured support for an amendment that would shield state employees from nondisclosure agreements that suppress sexual harassment or abuse. Representatives rejected another Whipple measure aimed at closing the gender wage gap by requiring agencies to disclose the pay range of employees to job applicants.
Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita, won approval for an amendment banning the use of state funds on fetal tissue research, and Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, succeeded in passing an amendment to lower the cost of concealed-carry licenses by $50, to $82.50.