Kansas House advances budget over objections to unchecked spending
Owens amendment blocks state agencies from adding new full-time employees
Rep. Henry Helgerson says lawmakers are surrendering their duty to scrutinize state spending by allowing a single, massive budget bill to advance to negotiations by select few members of the House and Senate. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Rep. Henry Helgerson appealed to his fellow House members’ sense of duty Tuesday as he asserted no more than “a handful of you” had actually read the 337-page budget proposal they were about to endorse.
Helgerson, an Eastborough Democrat, said lawmakers years ago would divide the state’s $16.6 billion spending blueprint into as many as eight separate appropriations bills, each of which could be examined in detail. Now, he said, the final plan will actually be crafted through negotiations between select House and Senate members.
As a result, lawmakers are not in a position to ask difficult questions about which state offices or employees are really necessary. The lack of transparency, he asserted, means the spending total continues to grow.
“You are losing your rights here in this body — the rights that are constitutionally given to you to look at and manage the budget, and to appropriate the funds,” Helgerson said. “You are giving them away.”
Helgerson found bipartisan support for his concerns as the House embarked on ambitious plans to take action on 21 bills throughout the day. Lawmakers are trying to make progress before adjourning April 6.
After a two-hour debate, House members set aside transparency concerns and advanced a budget bill that includes the transfer of $500 million to a rainy day fund, which would put the balance at $1.5 billion, and leaves the state with a $2.5 billion ending balance for the fiscal year that begins in July.
The bill makes adjustments to spending in the current fiscal year, including the removal of $53 million recommended by Gov. Laura Kelly to pay off water storage debt associated with Milford and Perry Lake reservoirs. The bill also outlines spending for fiscal year 2024. Public school funding would be handled in a separate bill.
Included in the House budget: $96 million to boost Medicaid rates for nursing facilities and $2 million for the state treasurer to establish an “alternative to abortion program” that promotes childbirth.
Not included: The governor’s $169.5 million request for a 5% raise for state employees or the judicial branch request for $16.3 million for a salary adjustment plan. Those items could be reconsidered in an omnibus bill when lawmakers return in May.
Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, proposed an amendment to block agencies from adding new full-time employees. He joined Democrats in complaining that lawmakers don’t get time to dig into budgets before voting on them.
“We’re not taking the time that we need as an appropriation body to control spending,” Owens said. “It’s that simple. We talk about it. I bet you — the vast majority of the people in my party — campaigned to some extent on controlling state spending. I sure did. And then I get up here and I realize, man, we’re not really good at saying no.”
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said lawmakers should be debating the budget rather than “sitting here like lemmings voting yes or voting no and heading off to lunch.”
He said he agreed with Owens about learning to say no, but not just on spending. Lawmakers also need to learn to say no to unwarranted tax breaks, he said. That includes tax breaks for those who have “the pull and friends in the Legislature to get themselves exempted,” he said.
“We need to learn how to say no to corporations who think that they somehow are deserving of tax breaks,” Carmichael said. “We need to learn how to say no to wealthy people who think that we ought to have quote flat taxes or non-progressive taxes or even regressive taxes. It’s all part of the same mix.”
Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, said state agencies always want to expand, but lawmakers aren’t holding them accountable.
“We give tax cuts to corporations,” Jacobs said. “We give tax cuts to special interests. But we’re not paying our people and then we complain that we have vacancies.”
Lawmakers approved the Owens amendment on a 75-46 vote.
House Minority Leader Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, secured support for an amendment to restore $54 million in annual funding to cities and counties to reduce local property tax rates. The Ad Valorem Tax Reduction Fund was established in the 1930s, but lawmakers stopped funding it 20 years ago. Miller’s amendment would take effect in 2025.
Rep. Bill Clifford, a Garden City Republican, supported the chance for lawmakers “to do right with our local units of government.”
“The No. 1 thing I hear about in western Kansas is property tax relief, and I’m excited that we get to vote on a tax bill today that actually gives some of that,” Clifford said.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, challenged Miller’s amendment on a technicality but was overruled.
The Miller amendment survived on an 80-43 vote.
The Senate previously adopted a budget bill that features 3.25% spending cut and bans universities from making inquiries of faculty, students and contractors about diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. Three members of both chambers will now meet to work out differences between the plans before lawmakers vote on the final product.
The House budget bill is inserted in Senate Bill 42, which originally authorized $22,983 in expenditures for claims against the state.
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