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Monday, July 7, 2014

Pay cuts not part of House final budget

By Dion Lefler
Eagle Topeka bureau

TOPEKA — In a surprise move late Thursday, state representatives reversed course on planned pay cuts for state workers and voted to impose a nearly 1.2 percent cut on most departments.

On an amendment by Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, the House voted 73-39 to abandon a plan to cut most state employee salaries by up to 7.9 percent.

Moments later, the House passed the entire budget on a vote of 69-52.

The salary plan was a bulwark in the budget recommended by the House Appropriations Committee.

He said he thinks that employees are the most valuable assets in an organization and that state workers would probably look elsewhere for work if their pay is cut.

Under his plan, the 1.2 percent cut would apply to all departments except K-12 education, the school pension fund, debt service and human services caseloads.

Department heads would have to figure out where to make cuts within their own budgets.

The amendment passed with little discussion.

Earlier in the day, the House had voted to add employees — their own legislative staffs — to the list of workers whose salaries would be cut.

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Wichita, who had shepherded the amendment to cut legislative staffer pay, sought to dismiss Goico's amendment as similar to others that had already been rejected.

But when the vote was tallied, Goico won, 73-39.

Lawmakers worked late into the night Thursday, trying to craft a $14.7 billion budget with a $5.67 billion general fund.

The proposal before the House would spend about $56 million less than Gov. Sam Brownback's recommended budget for the rest of this fiscal year and fiscal 2012, which begins in July. It would spend about $80 million less than the budget that passed the Senate earlier this week.

Even so, when debate began Thursday morning, one of the longest and most tense arguments was over a proposed amendment by Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, to cut an additional $100 million, spread proportionally across most state departments.

She got support from many fiscal conservatives, including Wichita freshman Republican Reps. Les Osterman and Benny Boman.

Osterman said the state should be doing what households and businesses do when they run into trouble — cut spending.

Boman added: "In this time of year, you should be pruning your roses so you get good, healthy growth. The private side is pruning. We also need to prune government."

Among the opponents was Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington.

She said voters didn't send her to Topeka to raise spending, but added, "I also wasn't sent here to cut services and cut the legs off everything in rural Kansas."

Kelley's amendment failed 46-77, prompting Democrats to question whether Republicans, who hold nearly three-fourths of the House seats, would be able to reach consensus in their caucus on a budget plan.

Fair Fares

At 10 p.m. Thursday, no one had brought up what many Wichita-area representatives have identified as their "go to war" issue, the Fair Fares subsidy to keep Wichita airline tickets relatively inexpensive.

Both the governor and the Senate set aside money for the program, but the Appropriations Committee cut it from the House budget.

Wichita-area representatives from both parties said they would have liked to have brought it to the floor, but they were handcuffed by the House's "pay as you go" rule.

Under the rule, members who bring a floor amendment to spend money have to offset it by cutting the same amount elsewhere in the spending plan.

Fair Fares supporters said they expect to see the money restored when House and Senate negotiators meet to work out differences between the chambers' bills.

Cigar dinner

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, got a budget amendment through to protect a Goddard priest's annual charity cigar dinner from prosecution under the state's indoor smoking ban.

Ward's amendment prohibits police from enforcing the state indoor smoking ban against charitable organizations that have held and continue to hold cigar-oriented fundraising events.

It is specifically designed to shield the Annual Benefit Cigar Dinner held by the Rev. H. Setter, a Catholic priest and cigar enthusiast. The dinner raises about $10,000 to $20,000 a year for the Setter Foundation, which gives grants to local groups that help the homeless, unwed mothers, and people with disabilities.

Ward's amendment passed on a voice vote.

Other amendments

The House also approved some amendments that didn't raise or lower spending, but did give officials more flexibility in how to spend.

Representatives greenlighted a proposal by Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, to allow trustees overseeing the government buyout of the southeast Kansas community of Treece to spend money on vacant lots to ensure no one ever builds another house there.

Using mostly federal grants, the community is being emptied of its last 100 or so residents to protect them from pollution from mountains of contaminated waste deposited during the area's long history of lead and zinc mining.

The House also approved an amendment by Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, to shift dollars within the state's information technology department to fix the Legislature's new but problem-plagued Internet pages.

The $339,000 to fix the system will come from funds earmarked for maintaining an old computer system that is no longer in use.

Contributing: Todd Fertig of The Eagle Reach Dion Lefler at 785-296-3006 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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