Topeka The 2012 legislative session that starts Monday will feature Gov. Sam Brownback trying to push through major changes in nearly all facets of state government.
But those who take care of vulnerable Kansans, teach school children and advocate for public workers are hoping they can get legislators to slow down the Brownback Express.
That will be a formidable task.
Brownback, a Republican, has a gale-force wind at his back with a 92-33 party edge in the House, with most of those Republicans supportive of the governor’s political philosophy.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate 32-8, but the only firewall between Brownback and many of his goals is a thin margin between so-called conservative and moderate Republicans in that chamber.
Heading into his second year as governor, Brownback, a former U.S. Senator, has launched a far-reaching agenda to overhaul school finance, contract with private companies for all Medicaid services, install a 401(k)-style savings plan to replace the current defined benefit public pension system, and cut state income taxes.
But on several occasions over the past several months, there have been stumbles.
Both Republican and Democratic legislators, have found themselves at odds with Brownback and his team, arguing over not only policy but also the seeming lack of due diligence when the administration tries to change things.
This includes the fight over closing state welfare offices, including the one in Lawrence, making Kansas the first state in the nation to stop providing arts funding, and a proposal to move several juvenile justice programs to another agency.
After public uproars over these proposals that have crossed party lines, Brownback has said he will propose re-funding the welfare office in Lawrence at the state level, revisit the arts issue and abandon the juvenile justice reorganization.
The latest tug of war is over Brownback’s request for proposals for companies to manage Medicaid, which expends nearly $3 billion per year to provide health care to 350,000 Kansans.
Several states have gone this route, but Brownback is plowing new ground by seeking a managed care system for long-term care of Kansans with severe disabilities. Brownback officials have said this will save money in the long run and provide better services.
But there is no example in the nation where this has worked, according to Kansas groups that provide these services now. The long-term supports of people with disabilities are different than providing immediate health care, said Sharon Spratt, chief executive officer of Cottonwood Inc.
In a meeting with Douglas County legislators, Spratt said she has met with the governor’s staff on this issue.
“They think they understand it all, but we’ve done our homework,” she said.
She said that even the managed care organizations concede they have no experience in serving people with developmental disabilities.
“I really don’t think the administration fully understands,” she said.
Appeals to restore funding
Another major battle of the session will be over money.
After several years of budget cuts during the Great Recession, state revenues have rebounded somewhat, totaling approximately $300 million more for the current fiscal year than what had been projected earlier.
Brownback has said the state needs to continue to hold the line on spending because federal funding that covers the cost of much of state expenses is going to dry up as Washington battles its deficit.
A recent manifestation of federal budget problems, he said, was the decision by Boeing Co. to close its Wichita defense plant.
“That is why I am going to propose a state budget here that is a strong state budget to get us in a stronger fiscal position. We would not be prudent if we didn’t prepare for this,” he said.
But advocates who have seen their budgets slashed are building pressure to loosen the purse strings to start restoring what has been cut.
In a meeting with Douglas County legislators, Stacey Hunter Schwartz, executive director of Independence Inc., laid out the problem in one area.
There are 3,369 people with physical disabilities who are on a waiting list for assistance that could be provided in their homes instead of having to go to a nursing home. The last person to receive the home-based services waited nearly three years.
There are 6,082 people receiving this assistance, down from 7,200 people a year ago.
“That’s a reduction of 1,200 persons, yet no one is moving off the waiting list,” she said. “Meanwhile, the state’s ending balance continues to rise to $318 million,” she said.
The battle over social service and health care funding will be waged throughout the budget.
School funding and taxes
That leads to Brownback’s stated desire to reduce taxes, specifically the state personal income tax, and overhaul the school finance formula, which accounts for approximately one-half of state spending.
On taxes, Brownback said he will provide details of this plan during his State of the State address, which is scheduled for Wednesday.
The governor has already released his school finance proposal, and that has raised alarms with school advocates.
His plan would eliminate state limits on local property taxes for schools, provide a small increase to rural districts but no increase for most mid-size and large districts, and junk a system of funding “weights” to provide for children whose education costs more.
“Our proposal is a modern formula that will provide districts the flexibility that is necessary to meet today’s challenges, prepare tomorrow’s opportunities, and excel in education,” Brownback said.
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon said, “We believe the governor is focused on the wrong problem. The current formula doesn’t need to be fixed, just funded.”
Drawing new lines
Meanwhile, the Legislature will engage in the once-a-decade task of redrawing political boundaries for congressional, legislative and State Board of Education districts to account for population shifts.
As almost always, Democratic-leaning Douglas County will be in the crosshairs as the Republican-dominated Legislature decides whether to move Lawrence into one congressional district or keep it split as it is now.