Updated: Mar 30
Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, secured first-round approval Tuesday of a $20 billion state government budget. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Debate on a new $20 billion state government budget in the Kansas House invited Tuesday a deep dive into the food sales tax, worker raises, prison safety, pensions, office construction and depositing half a billion dollars in a rainy day fund.
The conversation between members of the Republican majority and Democratic minority in the House threatened to run off the rails, but the GOP secured tentative approval of Senate Bill 267 without inserting a string of hot-button policy amendments.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, the Bunker Hill Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, urged his colleagues to support the plan for dealing with a $3 billion budget surplus. Under the bill, the state would spend $1 billion to strengthen the bottom line of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. It would allow 5 percent pay raises for qualified state employees and end the practice of swiping highway funding from the state Department of Transportation.
It also would earmark $500 million for a rainy-day fund that Waymaster said could come in handy within a few years.
“We know we are probably going into a recession,” he said. “We need to be fiscally responsible and put money into the budget stabilization fund.”
Of course, state representatives weren’t shy about sharing alternative ideas in the form of budget amendments. The GOP majority swatted away a proposal to expand eligibility for Medicaid to about 150,000 low-income Kansans and rejected an idea floated by Gov. Laura Kelly to provide $250 rebates to individual taxpayers.
House leadership sidestepped demands for reduction in the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax on groceries and withdrawal of a no-bid extension of contracts with three for-profit companies delivering services through KanCare, or Medicaid. The objective of Republicans is to delay rebidding of the managed-care contracts until after Kelly’s first term expired.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, Kansas, said the state should set aside money to trim the regressive sales tax on food because it was important to “make sure taxpayers get a piece” of the state’s extraordinary cash surplus.
House members also defeated a requested one-year delay in moving ahead with a $120 million plan for downsizing and renovation of the Docking State Office Building next to the Capitol. The project package includes building a new laboratory for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The Senate and House draft their own versions of the state budget before engaging in negotiations on a compromise. The final product considered in April will take into account an update of the state’s tax revenue projections.
The House easily defeated the amendment from Rep. Jim Gartner, D-Topeka, that would bring to life the governor’s $460 million plan to cut $250 checks to all Kansas taxpayers. Gartner said inflation was drifting toward 8 percent and could soon top double-digits.
“We need to give our constituents some help,” he said. “It will help them with their general expenses in this time of high inflation.”
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, said he was disappointed the House budget didn’t include additional funding for officers working for the Kansas Department of Corrections. He said two officers at Lansing Correctional Facility were nearly beaten to death in the past year because there was insufficient staff to guarantee their safety and to monitor inmates.
“We have a responsibility to stand with those who protect us,” Proctor said. “Our prisons right now are in crisis mode.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Democrat from Wichita, couldn’t get the House to go along with a proposal to have Kansas join 38 states that broadened eligibility for Medicaid. Under existing federal incentives, the state could spend about $40 million to expand the number of people enrolled in KanCare and secure more than $350 million in federal funding.
“If you believe in good budgeting, I believe this is the right course,” Helgerson said. “If you believe in taking care of the population we are here to serve, it’s the right course.”
This article was used by permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.