Archive for Sunday, May 1, 2005

Negotiators resolve budget issues, allowing adjournment

May 1, 2005


— Legislators settled a dispute over government workers' pay raises and rejected the purchase of an Edwards County ranch, finishing their work on the state budget and for the year early Sunday.

The compromise bill drafted by negotiators was the last piece of an $11.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The measure adds $147 million to proposals already approved and signed into law by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

The Senate approved the measure early Sunday, 28-11, and a 89-31 vote in the House sent it to Sebelius.

With the bill, overall spending would increase 5 percent, or $567 million. Much of the extra money would go to public schools and to cover rising costs associated with medical services for the needy, issues not in dispute.

Negotiators resolved dozens of differences between the House and Senate on budget items large and small. Those issues included how big a pay raise to give state employees and whether to permit the purchase of the 6,800-acre Circle K Ranch, currently owned by the cities of Hays and Russell.

Sebelius' administration wants to buy the ranch as a recreation and water conservation project, and the Senate endorsed the idea. But the House opposed it and prevailed in negotiations.

Agriculture groups and many rural legislators opposed the purchase, arguing it would take good farm land out of production. The cities lease the land.

"There's a tremendous negative fiscal impact to Edwards County," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls. "It creates a great depression on the local economy."

Wildlife and Parks Secretary Mike Hayden said the purchase would help the local economy because the land could be opened to public hunting while preserving it for wildlife.

"This is a way to diversify the local economy," Hayden said. "This will bring in hunters from all over the country."

Hayden said another benefit of the purchase is that it would allow the state to retire rights to water in the area, decreasing depletion of the area's aquifer and restore the flow of six miles of the Arkansas River.

The land's appraised value is $3.2 million. The federal government would reimburse the state for 75 percent of the cost, and a local groundwater district might contribute up to $500,000.

But Neufeld said the state has more pressing water issues, particularly the depletion of the huge multistate Ogallala Aquifer.

If the state wants to spend money to retire water rights, Neufeld said, "We need to do it where we get the benefit for the whole state."

Meanwhile, Sebelius sought a 2.5 percent pay raise for state workers, starting in June. Earlier this month, legislators approved a 1.25 percent pay raise in June and an additional 1.25 percent in December.

But senators on Thursday endorsed Sebelius' plan, which would cost an additional $24 million. The House stuck with the less generous raises already approved -- and prevailed in negotiations.

Neufeld and other Republicans said the state cannot afford Sebelius' plan, but Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley disagreed and said Republicans viewed state workers as simply a low priority.

"We wait to the bitter end to see if we've got enough money to give state employees a reasonable pay increase," Hensley said. "Time and time again, it's the Republican majorities that let them down."

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