Politics & Government

House postpones budget debate; Brownback thinks bill is ‘something he can sign’

Lawmakers hope to wrap up their session this weekend, but budget negotiations proceeded slowly on Saturday. (April 30, 2016)
Lawmakers hope to wrap up their session this weekend, but budget negotiations proceeded slowly on Saturday. (April 30, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Lawmakers plan to debate a bill Sunday that would fill part of the state’s budget hole but leave most of the cutting to Gov. Sam Brownback.

Brownback has reviewed the bill and “believes it is something he can sign,” Eileen Hawley, governor’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail late Saturday.

Legislators had hoped to vote on the bill late Saturday night, then end the session. But the Kansas House postponed its vote after disagreement with the Senate on other matters made wrapping up the session that night appear impossible.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, was optimistic lawmakers could finish the session on Sunday.

The budget bill, SB 249, would enable the state to delay a $96 million payment to the state’s pension fund, due this fiscal year, until 2018.

Additional cuts would still be needed to fix the state’s $290 million budget deficit, a task negotiators from the House and Senate were ready to leave to the governor.

Lawmakers are betting that Brownback proceeds with a $17.6 million cut to higher education, sweeps $185 million from the highway fund and cuts most state agencies by 3 percent, options he has previously discussed.

If the governor does that, the state would have a $27.4 million ending balance for this fiscal year, which ends in June, and an $81 million ending balance for next fiscal year.

The one area that will be off the table for cuts under the bill is K-12 education, a key demand for House negotiators.

“We passed a block grant (last year) where we wanted stable and secure funding for our schools in unsecure times, and we’ve (been) very consistent with that message,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman.

Critics said lawmakers were shirking their duty as appropriators. But Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate’s budget chairman, said the decision to defer to the governor was prudent because of the uncertainty of trying to fill the budget hole through legislative action.

“The danger is nothing passes,” Masterson said. “I think the debate in this building has become toxic to the level that I’m not sure anything passes.”

Lawmakers are not anxious to repeat the grueling experience of last year’s legislative session, which lasted a record 114 days as they struggled to pass a budget fix. Saturday marked the 72nd day of this year’s session.

‘No reason for us to stay’

A push to end the session Saturday derailed in part over a massive health bill.

House Republicans were weighing whether to begin debate on the budget bill around midnight when Vickrey announced that the Senate had adjourned until Sunday afternoon.

“There’s no reason for us to stay tonight. With the Senate gone, we can’t achieve closing down the session,” Vickrey said.

Lawmakers had loudly shouted their disapproval moments before when Vickrey discussed the possibility of a debate starting after midnight on a budget bill that many had yet to read. They urged House leadership to wait until the next day.

One of the items holding up lawmakers is HB 2615, which includes most of the Legislature’s major health policies for the session. Among other things, it would make it easier for out-of-state physicians to become certified in Kansas and enable midwives to deliver babies without a doctor’s signature.

Members of the Senate want to include language that would explicitly prohibit midwives from performing abortions. Including that language would break a legislative rule that requires a bill to pass one chamber before the language can be added in a conference committee, according to Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.

“There isn’t anything to conference about. How do we reconcile that?” Hawkins said. “We can’t just go and put that back in. It’s impossible.”

House members had made their disapproval of including the language in the bill known earlier in the week. Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, said Friday that despite his anti-abortion views, he does not support breaking the rules to win on this issue.

“I admire people for their principles,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, the primary proponent of including the abortion restriction. “But principles do have hierarchy, and what is most important is the protection of human life.”

‘It may take several budgets’

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was cautious when asked early Saturday evening whether she expected the budget bill to pass.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult to pass the bill in both the House and Senate,” she said. “I’m very tepid. … It may take several budgets before we get there.”

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said lawmakers had abdicated their responsibility by leaving the decision of how to close the hole to the governor.

“This is all just incredibly hypocritical. We have seen a lot of bills this session that mention other branches trying to usurp legislative authority,” Proctor said, referencing legislation that passed the Senate that would have enabled the impeachment of Kansas Supreme Court justices or executive branch officers for encroaching on the Legislature’s power.

“These budget decisions are decisions that are supposed to be made by our Legislature,” she said. “I understand that it’s an election year, but I think that it’s really important that our legislators do the job that they were elected to do and are bound to do by our constitution.”

Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this fall.

Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, said it was ironic that lawmakers were asking another branch of government to make these spending decisions after previous protests about the court stepping on the Legislature’s authority as appropriators.

Kelly said Republicans had decided to “get out of Dodge and leave the mess for the governor.”

Highways, higher ed

Brownback has already announced that he plans to take $185 million from the state’s highway fund, prompting the Kansas Department of Transportation to delay some construction projects in the next three fiscal years.

He cut higher-education funding by a 3 percent in March and has proposed doing the same for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Masterson added a provision to the budget bill that would make future cuts to universities proportional to their total budgets, which include tuition and federal dollars.

That change would benefit the smaller regent universities, such as Emporia State and Pittsburg State, but would lead to bigger cuts for the University of Kansas and Kansas State University.

KU would lose $5.2 million next year under this proposal, more than $1 million more than it would have lost had the cut been based solely on universities’ state aid. Kansas State would lose $4.1 million, also $1 million more than it would lose otherwise.

The change would slightly lessen the proposed cut for Wichita State University, saving it $60,000. WSU stands to lose about $2.2 million if the governor proceeds with his higher-education cut.

Provisions restrict governor

Even as lawmakers look to leave the major spending decisions to Brownback, the bill does include provisions meant to restrict his power.

There is a provision to prevent the governor from demolishing or selling the Docking State Office Building in Topeka. Lawmakers objected earlier in the session to Brownback’s plans to demolish the building, which houses the power plant for the Capitol and other state office buildings, and use a $20 million lease-purchasing agreement with Bank of America to finance the construction of a new power plant.

The bill has language to enable the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to consider offers to privatize the state’s hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned but would restrict the state from accepting any bids until the Legislature reconvenes next year.

The bill also includes a provision to enable live-streaming of committee meetings at the Capitol next year, a measure that has long been sought by transparency advocates.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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