Kansas lawmakers pin hopes on efficiency study

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

? Heading into a new legislative session, and facing an estimated $175 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas lawmakers are eagerly awaiting a report that is supposed to show how the state can save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

In 2015, lawmakers hired the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal to conduct a months-long review of spending and practices in executive branch agencies and K-12 education, and to make recommendations on ways the state could be more efficient.

Under the contract, for which A&M is being paid $2.6 million, a preliminary report was due Friday. But a more detailed report will be presented to the House and Senate budget committees on Jan. 12, just hours before Brownback is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address.

Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s optimistic that the report will be useful in the upcoming session.

“I believe the governor’s recommendations will include many of the savings, and that’ll give us time to delve into the details and work with the governor to come to consensus about other recommendations,” he said. “When the governor presents his budget at beginning of session, it will balance with a few of the recommendations but not the majority.”

But Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who serves on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she is less optimistic.

“Obviously we all want to be as efficient as we can with our government operations,” she said. “The things that I heard about from the first presentation (in early December) seem to be things that are pretty standard proposals that anyone can make. They weren’t necessarily Kansas-specific.”

On Dec. 8, A&M gave lawmakers a status report on the project and presented a few preliminary recommendations that called for filling vacant positions in the Department of Revenue to improve tax collections.

“We didn’t need to hire somebody to tell us that,” Francisco said.

A&M also recommended changing the way the state administers vendor contracts to take full advantage of the 30-day allowance for paying invoices, and negotiating discounts when the state pays more promptly than that.

“I’m concerned about efficiencies that help us (the state), but not businesses and citizens in Kansas, like the delay of making payments,” Francisco said. “That’s not more efficient. It maybe saves a little bit of money, but it does not make things more efficient.”

Meanwhile, many people are anxious to hear what A&M will recommend regarding K-12 education spending, the single largest category of state general fund expenditures, but a category over which the Legislature has little direct control because the funds are managed by each of the state’s 286 local school districts.

A&M spokesman Steve Alschuler declined to talk about the specifics of the report before its official release. But Kansas State Department of Education officials said the company requested volumes of information, both from the department and many of the state’s largest school districts, including the Lawrence school district.

Specifically, those included detailed information about districts’ employee health benefits and casualty insurance costs. The firm also asked for districts’ utility costs, vendor information, and their contracts and pricing lists.

In follow-up conference calls, the department said, A&M asked questions on a wide range of issues such as the use of private funds for professional development, and the possibility of consolidating responsibilities between the state’s schools for the blind and the deaf, and the departments of Health and Environment, Children and Families, and Aging and Disability Services.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said in a statement in August that he hoped A&M would focus its attention on maximizing student success rather than cutting spending.

“From extensive research, we know that Kansas has one of the most efficient school systems in the nation, ranking in the top 10 for overall educational achievement,” Tallman said. “Kansas spends less per pupil than every other high achieving state, even when adjusting for regional cost differences.”