Topeka Stung by Democrats' criticism that they were putting off too many important spending decisions, Republicans restored pay raises and money for universities to a proposed state budget before a committee endorsed it Friday.
The House Appropriations Committee finished its work on three bills providing a total of $12.2 billion to state government for the fiscal year beginning July 1. On a single voice vote, the committee forwarded all three to the House, which expects to debate them next week.
The committee restored more than $86 million for raises and one-time bonuses for state workers, though the GOP plan is different from Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' plan to give workers a 4 percent raise.
It also voted to restore additional funding Sebelius had proposed for state universities' general operations and social services. In all, the committee put back $199 million in spending it previously had deleted.
Republicans said strong revenue collections - in February alone, the state received nearly $18 million more than anticipated - allowed them to go ahead with decisions on items previously had wanted to defer until late April.
"The revenue that's coming in justifies the funding," said Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita.
But Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden, suggested another motive during a caucus for GOP committee members before the panel began its deliberations. "This will take a lot of the heat off on the criticism that we're not doing anything," Bethell said.
Highway spending drops
The final budget for fiscal 2008 is likely to be about $12.4 billion, roughly the same size as the current budget, because spending on highway projects, which fluctuates from year to year, would drop by 24 percent.
Sebelius' budget included sizable increases in spending on public schools, reflecting passage last year of a three-year funding plan; additional dollars for social services; and nearly $39 million more for higher education.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee is working on its own spending plan for fiscal 2008 and hopes to vote on it March 16, so that the Senate can debate it the following week. Senate and House negotiators will draft the final version of budget legislation.
Legislators plan to work through April 3, take their annual spring break and return April 25 to wrap up business for the year.
Although it's not unusual for legislators to put off some major budget decisions until the wrap-up session, Sebelius had criticized House Republicans, saying they were leaving too many decisions unresolved. The Appropriations Committee previously had deferred decisions on $368 million worth of spending.
"She's been very concerned action has not been taken thus far to fund critical areas and is encouraged to hear some action is finally being taken," Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said Friday. "There are still a number of key areas which need attention and she's hopeful this dialogue will continue."
Of particular concern to the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the higher education system, was the committee putting off decisions on universities' operating funds and pay raises for state workers.
"Maybe they realized they went a little too far," Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said of the Republicans.
The pay proposal approved by the committee would grant state workers both a 1 percent pay raise and a one-time $1,450 bonus during the next fiscal year. About 1,500 of the state's 41,200 workers would receive an additional 5 percent pay increase because their salaries are at least 25 percent below market rates.
GOP leaders plan to have a committee study the state's pay system further this summer and fall. Meanwhile, some Democrats, who believe state employees would rather have their salaries adjusted than receive one-time bonuses, questioned whether the pay proposal had received enough review in the six weeks in which it was developed.
"Possibly, this was pushed through too fast," said Rep. Bill Feuerborn, of Garnett, the committee's ranking Democrat.
The House committee's proposed budget still doesn't contain some big items.
Missing is Sebelius' proposal to set aside $4 million to help extend state health insurance coverage to all children under age 6. The federal government would chip in $6 million for the expansion.
Sebelius proposed the same initiative last year, but House GOP leaders opposed it, fearing the expansion of coverage would prove far more expensive.
The House committee also put off decisions on how to allocate $40 million for vocational-technical education and whether to give community colleges a $3.8 million increase in their state aid.