Gov. Laura Kelly signed into law a $21 billion budget bill, but vetoed a $500,000 earmark for stem-cell research on COVID-19 at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly’s enthusiasm when signing a new $21 billion state government budget couldn’t be dampened with the lone veto of an earmark for research using stem cells to search for a treatment of severe COVID-19 cases.
“I’m proud of this bipartisan, fiscally responsible budget that demonstrates what lawmakers can get done when we work together,” Kelly said. “This budget includes increased funding for disability services, the criminal justice system, mental health services and higher education.”
She said the appropriations would deliver critical services so that Kansans, businesses and local governments continue with the COVID-19 recovery.
The House voted 98-21 to approve Senate Bill 159, while the Senate voted 26-12 on the bill’s behalf. It’s possible the Legislature would attempt to override the governor Wednesday when convened for the final day of the annual session, but there remained sharp division between legislators who believe the state was spending too little or too much.
“I refuse to give more of my hard-earned money to government that has an endless appetite for spending with no true results for the great people of Kansas,” said Rep. David French, a Lansing Republican among House members opposed to the bill.
The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 and signed into law Friday raised state spending by $17 million to provide salary increases for employees in the Kansas court system and to add 70 new court services officers.
The Legislature rejected proposals to provide across-the-board pay raises for state workers, with some lawmakers declaring it unfair to give increases to state employees who didn’t lose jobs during the pandemic. Kelly recommended state employees get a 2.5% salary bump.
“Is the irony lost on anyone else that the very judges’ salaries that we are increasing as a ‘good job’ are the same judges that have stepped all over our toes with massive education funding?” said Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, a Ness City Republican irritated by previous court rulings that state aid to K-12 schools was unconstitutionally low. “This is a huge reason we cannot get control of our state’s budget.”
Topeka Rep. Vic Miller, one of the few Democrats to vote against the budget, did so for a reason contrary to Lee-Hahn’s position. Miller said he voted “no” because the rest of state employees were also deserving of a pay raise.
The law did authorize issuance of bonds to finance the $120 million renovation of Docking State Office Building next to the Capitol and $65 million in bonds for construction of a Kansas Department of Health and Environment lab in the Topeka area.
The measure funneled $53 million to public and private universities and colleges for scholarships, staff recruitment and economic development. The extra funding was designed to comply with federal requirements on higher education institutions receiving federal COVID-19 aid.
The bill directed $3.6 million at the Board of Indigents’ Defense Services to boost the rate paid attorneys. It included $3 million to support implementation in Kansas of the nationwide 988 hotline for people to connect with mental health or suicide prevention counselors.
Kelly vetoed a provision setting aside $500,000 for the University of Kansas Medical Center to conduct clinical trials for a COVID-19 treatment using stem cells derived from umbilical cords. Critics said the modest level of funding to the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center would make the project not “realistic or even feasible,” because a typical clinical trial could cost 20 times the amount appropriated.
“Given those realities and the proven effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that are now widely available, we should focus our efforts on increasing the number of Kansans who are vaccinated so that we can prevent infections, severe illnesses and deaths,” Kelly said.
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said he was disappointed the governor undermined research on COVID-19. He said $500,000 was enough to support a clinical trial involving 10 people.
“There is currently no treatment available for COVID-19 patients who have developed the most severe symptoms, including pneumonia,” said Thompson, among Republicans critical of Kelly’s handling of the pandemic. “There is an urgent need for a medical intervention beyond supportive therapy for these patients.”
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