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Archive for Friday, March 16, 2012

Kan. House gives budget first-round approval

March 16, 2012

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— A proposed $14.1 billion budget for Kansas received first-round approval Friday from the state House after members decided to boost spending on mental health services and help public schools cover unanticipated costs.

The House considered numerous amendments to the budget, drafted by its Republican-dominated Appropriations Committee, then advanced the entire bill on a voice vote. A final vote Monday will determine whether it moves to the Senate.

The Appropriations Committee stuck closely to many of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s spending recommendations as it sought to ensure the state would be left with a comfortable cushion of cash reserves next year, while leaving room for significant income tax cuts.

“It’s a budget that mirrors, by and large, big pieces of what the governor did,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican. “I would call it responsible.”

The House’s proposed budget is likely to cut overall state spending by about $600 million, or about 4 percent, and could leave the state with cash reserves of more than $500 million at the end of June 2013, depending on how much lawmakers cut taxes.

The Senate is drafting its own spending plan, and the final version will be written by negotiators for the two chambers. And after that, lawmakers will consider a smaller budget bill to tie up loose ends at the close of the session in early May.

“We still have a lot of issues,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, a Cummings Democrat who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

Parts of the House committee’s budget generated bipartisan criticism, particularly about funding for schools and community mental health services.

The state’s 286 school districts are feeling pinched this school year because they’ve enrolled more students than expected and have a higher-than-anticipated demand for programs for children who are at risk of failing. Brownback included an additional $29 million in his budget to deal with the problem.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee deleted the money, arguing that the districts should tap their cash reserves first. Rep. Sheryl Spalding, an Overland Park Republican, proposed diverting $25 million from highway projects. Her amendment passed, 116-1.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said House members worried that some districts didn’t have enough of a cushion absorb all of their unanticipated costs.

“Are we creating winners and losers?” he said.

The House also approved, 75-46, an amendment from Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican, to add $5 million for grants to community mental health centers. The Appropriations Committee had accepted Brownback’s proposal to spend $10 million on the centers.

Colloton, chairwoman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said squeezing community services means mentally ill Kansas residents who commit minor crimes are for more likely to be jailed instead of receiving treatment.

“We are putting mentally ill people in cages,” Colloton said. “This is a situation that is abominable.”

Some legislators objected to Colloton’s proposal because it would tap mineral severance tax revenues that otherwise would be distributed to the state’s 105 counties.

On another issue, the House voted 113-7 in favor of keeping a policy enacted in October by Brownback’s administration that cut off food stamps to hundreds of U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Before the policy, officials have said, families with illegal immigrants could fare better in seeking benefits than similar families with no illegal immigrants. The policy ended a practice of excluding earnings of undocumented workers when calculating a family’s household income for eligibility purposes.

And, on a voice vote, the House rejected a proposed ban on the admission of new patients for a year to the Kansas Neurological Institute, the state hospital for the developmentally disabled in Topeka. The goal was to free up money for in-home services, but some lawmakers noted that its medically fragile patients who couldn’t be served well in community programs.

House members also added a provision to prohibit the state from paying for abortions, except to save a woman’s life. The provision also says state employees couldn’t be involved in abortions while on the clock, a rule aimed primarily at the staff and doctors-in-training at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

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