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Archive for Thursday, March 22, 2007

House, Senate negotiators begin budget talks

March 22, 2007

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— Pay raises for government workers and funding for a presidential primary in February 2008 are among the biggest issues facing House and Senate negotiators as they draft the final version of a bill containing most of the next state budget.

Negotiations began after senators approved three spending bills Wednesday. The votes were 32-8 on a bill revising the current budget, 29-11 on a measure outlining construction and repair projects and 26-14 on a bill financing agencies' operations for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

House members approved three bills of their own last week. After solving dozens of disagreements, the negotiators plan to put everything into a single bill, so both chambers could vote on it as early as next week.

While overall state spending is likely to remain about the same during the next fiscal year, at $12.4 billion - almost $12,000 for every household in Kansas - there will be big shifts in how the money is spent. Public schools will see a big increase in aid, in keeping with a plan approved last year to end a lawsuit, while highway spending, which fluctuates from year to year, will decline about 24 percent.

The two chambers disagree on whether the state should spend $2 million on the presidential primary next year or have the Democratic and Republican parties hold caucuses at their own expense to choose delegates to their national nominating conventions. The Senate approved the spending; the House rejected it.

Another key issue is Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' proposal to give state employees a 4 percent pay raise, which would cost more than $86 million during the next fiscal year. The House's Republican majority fashioned an alternative that spends the same amount of money but distributes it differently; the Senate hasn't acted on any plan.

As with any budget decision, negotiators could sidestep the issue, forcing legislators to resolve it at the end of their session in late April or early May.

"The biggest thing is the state pay plan," said Neufeld, R-Ingalls. "We don't need to put it off. It's not necessary to put it off."

Both chambers approved about $12.2 billion in spending, deferring some important decisions. For example, the House didn't include any money for aid to vocational colleges, normally a $40 million item, or any money for disaster relief, which could cost the state an additional $30 million.

Legislative leaders hope to pass the bill being drafted by negotiators before legislators begin their annual spring break on April 4. Lawmakers will resume their session on April 25 and will consider one last budget reconciliation bill.

Gambling debate

After forcing the hand of a House committee chairman, the chamber is in a position to debate Friday whether gambling should be expanded in the state.

Speaker Melvin Neufeld said Wednesday the debate will focus on a Senate-passed bill that makes the Kansas Lottery a permanent fixture. The bill can be amended to include other forms of gambling, such as casinos designed to attract tourists and slot machines at dog and horse tracks.

Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said he has no idea how the final version of a gambling bill will look or whether it will pass. The House last debated a gambling bill in 2003, passing it, only to see the Senate reject it.

"It depends on what they end up doing with the bill," he said. "It's like a food fight."

CO2 storage

A bill creating a financial incentive for industries to pump excess carbon dioxide into the ground rather than into the air won Senate approval Wednesday and went to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

The vote was 40-0. The House approved it last month 84-38.

The measure exempts from property taxes equipment used for the collecting process, and it also gives companies an estimated $150,000 a year in income tax breaks for capturing and storing the greenhouse gas, widely identified as a major potential contributor to global warming.

Supporters of the bill include Sunflower Electric Power Corp., based in Hays, which plans to build a new biofuels processing center. It wants to use carbon dioxide it captures to grow algae, then use that algae to produce a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline.

Others hope the bill will encourage more oil and natural gas producers to use pressurized carbon dioxide gas to tap difficult-to-extract deposits. Another option is simply having the CO2 injected underground for storage.

Gun bill

A bill preventing local governments from imposing their own restrictions on people's ability to legally carry concealed guns won House approval Wednesday on a 107-17 vote and went to the Senate.

Legislators enacted a concealed carry law last year over Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' veto. This year's bill gives the state the final word on how the law is applied. Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he expects the bill will pass his chamber.

The law banned concealed guns in some locations, including bars, taverns, schools, courthouses, churches and day-care centers. Also, property owners can ban concealed guns by posting a sign.

But lawmakers complained that some Johnson County cities took it a step further, banning concealed guns from public parks, open spaces and city buildings.

The bill also allows the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to get more information from district courts and treatment facility records for background checks. It would prohibit giving a license to anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and would require all violations of the concealed gun law to be handled in district court rather than municipal court.

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