The Kansas House on Saturday passed a new state budget that restores funding to higher education, state hospitals and health care but takes direct aim at funding sought by Gov. Laura Kelly to improve the safety of employees and inmates at state prisons.
Adoption of the state government's spending plan ended a two-day impasse in which House Democrats and Republicans rejected a budget months in the making in an attempt to force the Senate to concur with House-passed legislation expanding eligibility for Medicaid to about 130,000 adults and children in Kansas.
More than 20 Republicans switched their votes after a preliminary tally on Saturday night showed the plan lacked enough support to pass. They abandoned hopes of stalling after a 90-minute delay, passing the budget on a 79-45 vote.
House GOP leaders responded to gridlock Friday night with a second budget outline that removed cherished spending priorities of dissident Republicans, but that plan was crushed 42-81.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the latest offer to House members restored those cuts. However, the bill would redirect the $35 million included in the budget for the Kansas Department of Corrections. The funding requested by Kelly was earmarked for employee salaries, inmate health services and to reduce overcrowding among prisoners.
"There was some discussion and I would say a little bit of angst about this $35 million being appropriated to the Department of Corrections and not specifically knowing exactly what was going to happen with it, and also having no oversight. So we have a detailed plan," Waymaster said.
During House and Senate budget negotiations on Friday night, a proposal was hatched to appropriate $8 million in state funding to improve salaries of correctional officers at El Dorado Correctional Facility, which has been the scene of violent clashes due to inmate overcrowding and inadequate staffing. Officers at other state prisons wouldn't share in that bounty.
"My ability to use the money is very limited," said Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections. "I can only use it for El Dorado. I'm required to keep a cell house open that we need to close temporarily."
Werholtz objected to the proposal prepared for consideration by the House because it would defer about $27 million sought by the governor to move 600 male inmates to county jails or out-of-state prisons and to transfer 120 female inmates at Topeka Correctional Facility to a repurposed juvenile center in Topeka. The bill also would postpone $4.5 million to deal with a Hepatitis C outbreak in state prisons.
Granting corrections officers at El Dorado and denying raises to prison staff at Lansing, Hutchinson and other facilities will generate morale problems, he said.
Werholtz said the revised budget did allocate $345,000 to purchase upgraded "stab" jackets for corrections officers and parole staff in response to prison violence. It's an acknowledgment those state workers could be placed in dangerous situations due to budget constraints and need better equipment, he said.
The new House budget would require the agency to go before the State Finance Council, composed of top legislators in the House and Senate and the governor, to acquire other funding needed to change the security climate in prisons.
"I think it's a tactic where they're willing to trade off prison safety and public safety in order to avoid a vote on Medicaid expansion in the Senate," Werholtz said.