Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Kansas House approves measure that adds $50 million in school funding to budget

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

The Kansas House on Tuesday voted to take $50 million from the transportation department to give schools an increase as it put its budget together to face off with the Senate with the legislative session nearing its scheduled conclusion.

In another decision on the $14.4 billion budget, House Republicans, who hold a strong majority, rejected several efforts by Democrats to provide a pay raise to state employees, who haven't had an increase in three years.

But on a close vote, 60-56, the House approved allocating $5.8 million to reduce waitings lists for services for those with physical and developmental disabilities and senior citizens.

The amendment by state Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Cummings, attracted Republicans too as the federal government has indicated it is looking into the waiting lists.

"The problem is we have 7,357 individuals who are not receiving services who the federal government says should be," said state Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden.

Added state Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, said, "We are too well off to disregard the disabled."

But state employees did not fare well.

A one percent pay increase was rejected, as was a proposal to fund a plan to assist state employees who earn below market-value, and another measure aimed at raising pay for employees at critically under-staffed state mental health hospitals.

State Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, said failing to adequately pay state employees was costing the state more in the long run because of high turnover rates and having to re-train new employees.

She said 1,500 state employees qualify for food stamps "so what we don't pay in salary, we pay for in welfare."

State Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, urged colleagues to provide a one percent pay raise for state employees, noting the state's growing budget surplus of approximately $600 million. "We have the money. There comes a time when what we have to do is right," Tietze said.

Under the House pay-go rule, the money for the payraise — $10 million — had to come from another area of the budget, which in this instance was from a fund in the attorney general's office to pay for water litigation. Several legislators said those litigation funds were too important to tap for a payraise.

Tietze's effort failed, 55-63.

Another pay raise measure for state hospitals that are facing large numbers of unfilled positions was also rejected.

The House school funding plan would spend $25 million to increase base state aid by $37 per student, and the remaining $25 million would help school districts on property taxes. The dollars would come from revenues within the Kansas Department of Transportation.

The Senate budget would add $50 million for base aid, which equals $74 per pupil. It would also add $27 million to help on property taxes. The Senate proposes to get the funding from the state's growing surplus.

The 2012 session is scheduled to end Friday, although it can be extended. Legislators also are far from resolving differences on taxes and redistricting.

On using transportation dollars for schools, some House members said it wasn't wise to keep using "the bank of KDOT." But the amendment by state Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, was approved 99-17.

State Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, tried to dedicate half of the proposed base state aid increase to reading programs for students in kindergarten through fourth grade, saying improving reading scores of young students was a priority of Gov. Sam Brownback and crucial for student success.

But several Democrats and Republicans argued against Huebert's amendment, saying that local districts were in a better position to decide how to spend the funds.

The lengthy budget debate covered a wide range of policy options as the House staked out positions against the Senate.

A proposal by state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, to maintain the current system of providing longterm care services for those with developmental disabilities failed 54-65.

Brownback wants to bring those services within his proposed privatization of Medicaid, although he has agreed to a one-year delay.

"This is really a bad idea to put the most vulnerable Kansans in a risky scheme," Ward said. But House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, urged the House to stick with the the one-year delay that Brownback had agreed to.

An amendment by state Rep. Sheryl Spalding, R-Overland Park, aimed at freeing up more funds for children's programs was approved.

State Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, succeeded in adding an amendment that would require the use of the federal database E-Verify to check the citizenship status of employees working for businesses on state contracts worth $50,000 or more.

And state Rep. TerriLois Gregory, R-Baldwin City, won approval of adding $611,000 for the Communities in Schools program, which works to reduce the dropout rate.