TOPEKA — Lawmakers agreed to a budget deal Friday to inject cash into state universities, renovate the Docking State Office Building, increase pay for judges, restrict the use of vaccine passports, and leave the state with a $541 million reserve.
The final adjustments include stripping state employees of a 2.5% pay raise. Senate Republicans demanded workers at state agencies not be rewarded after their counterparts in the private sector were subjected to furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic.
House members approved the plan by a 98-21 margin, and the Senate followed with a 26-12 vote that sends it to the governor for consideration.
By adding $53 million for higher education, lawmakers hope to avoid the wrath of federal authorities who could withhold $1.6 billion in aid to the state if spending were cut from previous years. The governor’s budget director first brought the threat to the attention of the Legislature in a memo sent Sunday night.
In last year’s federal relief package, the requirement to maintain spending levels considered the total dollar amounts allocated by the state. In the latest legislation, the spending levels are reviewed as a percentage of the total budget. Based on those calculations, the state needs to add $105 million in higher education funding for each of the next two fiscal years. Lawmakers hope to receive a waiver by showing “good faith” in meeting federal authorities halfway.
Under Friday’s deal, universities will receive $15 million for staff buyouts, retention and recruitment. Another $20 million will go toward scholarship programs. Also included in the funding hike is $8 million for grants, $5 million for community colleges, and $4.3 million for technical schools. Washburn University in Topeka will get $665,000.
After years of neglected maintenance, the budget authorizes $120 million in bonds for the renovation of the Docking building, subject to approval by the State Finance Council. The historic building on the west side of the Statehouse was emptied by former Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed expensive contracts for office space elsewhere in Topeka and promised a lucrative contract to an associate for the demolition of the building. The Legislature intervened, thwarting plans for a new power plant and retail space.
An additional $65 million in bonds will go toward a new Kansas Department of Health and Environment lab to be constructed within eight miles of the Capitol Complex. The budget also cements restrictions on contact tracing, however, which has limited the ability of health officials to track the spread of COVID-19. Other language bans requirements for vaccine passports.
Lawmakers allocated $17 million for judicial branch pay increases. Judges will get a 5% raise in both of the next two years, and staff will be eligible for raises up to 12%.
House negotiators, however, conceded to the Senate’s removal of $28 million to pay for a 2.5% increase in pay for state employees.
“I just want to go on record as starting the lobbying process for our state employees,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Democrat from Kansas City who was involved in the budget talks. “An organization’s most valuable asset is their talented employees. So hopefully, we will put all our efforts toward that next year.”
Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, and Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, criticized the decision to give a pay raise to judges in light of Kansas Supreme Court decisions they personally disagree with.
Fairchild referenced a 2019 decision in which the court determined the right to personal autonomy in the Kansas Constitution gives women the right to terminate a pregnancy.
“We have an activist state Supreme Court which created a right to an abortion, and I don’t believe we should reward them for that,” Fairchild said. “Instead, I believe that we should stand for life and stand up to the Kansas Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court also enforced provisions of the state constitution that require adequate and equitable funding of K-12 public schools, forcing lawmakers from 2017-2019 to increase spending after previously cutting funding and spending a decade in litigation.
“Is the irony lost on anyone else that the very judges’ salaries we are increasing as a good job are the same judges that have stepped all over our toes with the massive education funding?” Lee-Hahn said. “This is why we have such a huge budget. The judicial branch has infringed on the legislative branch as the keeper of the purse strings.”
Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, said he was voting against the budget “as a peaceful protest” in support of Medicaid expansion.
“All I want is a debate on Medicaid expansion and an up or down vote,” Samsel said.
Lawmakers inserted language into the plan directing the Kansas Department for Children and Families to give $300,000 to the Hope Ranch for Women — a faith-based, equine-assisted residential home for exploited women. Gov. Laura Kelly removed the direction from a previous version of the budget with a line-item veto. The House successfully overrode the veto, but the Senate did not consider an override.