Kansas Legislature’s budget digs deep to earmark remaining federal stimulus funding
Big picture: $220M to infrastructure, $142M for health center, $100M into savings
Goodland Sen. Richard Billinger, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, urged colleagues to pass a state budget bill making use of hundreds of millions of dollars in unused federal economic stimulus funding before deadlines compel the money to be returned. The House and Senate passed the bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature signed off on a new state government budget Thursday reallocating unspent federal economic stimulus funding to help communities with infrastructure projects, pump $100 million more into the state’s rainy-day account and support construction of a joint university health science center in Wichita.
The bill approved in the Senate and later by the House didn’t include funding for state employee raises nor expansion of Medicaid for benefit of the working poor in Kansans. The salary issue and other loose ends of the budget would be addressed by the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in late April after financial analysts craft revised state tax revenue forecasts.
Goodland Republican Sen. Richard Billinger, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said House and Senate negotiators focused on finding suitable uses for remaining American Rescue Plan Act funding before deadlines required it to be returned to the federal treasury.
“We want to make sure all these funds are expended before they have to be sent back,” Billinger said.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat and one of the House budget negotiators, said the typical starting point of budget conversation in the Legislature involved ideas for elevating expenditures. He said Republicans and Democrats should collaborate on strategies for holding the line on spending.
“It is time we put down the partisanship and say, ‘Let’s work together to solve the problems,” he said. “Drop the labels and start work on bigger solutions to everything.”
A key feature of the spending blueprint sent to the governor was $220 million set aside to deliver $50 million to $55 million annually for the next four years so cities and counties in Kansas had matching funds to compete for federal infrastructure grants.
The budget allocated $142 million in ARPA funding toward construction of a health science center in Wichita through a project linking Wichita State University and University of Kansas. The facility is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $300 million.
“If I looked hard enough I could probably find 50 things I really hate about this budget,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican with more than a dozen years in the Legislature. “And, if I look really hard, I can find 50 things I absolutely hate. I hope we can support ‘great’ and move down the road.”
Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, said he was disturbed this budget didn’t set aside appropriations for state employee pay raises. He said it was disheartening the Senate was considering legislation to give statewide officeholders raises but the chamber had yet to take up compensation for state employees receiving more modest wages.
The budget deal rolled into House Bill 2184 — approved 24-12 in the Senate and 79-44 in the House — included a $100 million increase in funding directed to a state saving account in anticipation of an economic downturn. The supplemental infusion of cash would raise to $600 million the total amount the Legislature would dedicate to the rainy-day fund in the fiscal year starting July 1.
The budget bill secured $52 million to cover debt associated with the Milford and Perry reservoirs. A special $50 million reserve account would be established to provide matching funds for state agencies applying for federal grants.
More than $60 million was set aside to benefit Kansas nursing homes, which struggled through the pandemic and increasingly in jeopardy of closing.
“We’ve got to try to help these counties and these local hospitals, local nursing homes stay in business,” Billinger said. “I had a phone call Monday that the nursing home serving Quinter, Kansas, is closing.”
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, said the Legislature could do much more for local hospitals and nursing facility by expanding eligibility for Medicaid to about 150,000 lower-income Kansans and draw down hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the federal government.
Forty states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid services, while Kansas stands among 10 states that declined to do so since the Affordable Care Act was implemented nearly a decade ago. All four states surrounding Kansas have taken that step.
“We’re not taking advantage of the opportunities afforded us in cooperation with the federal government to help health outcomes of residents,” said Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat.
The budget bill did include text designed to require Kansas Board of Regents institutions to cease emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion issues in hiring. Advocates of the provision denounced public colleges and universities for requiring what was referred to as loyalty oaths.
Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, said she was struck by inclusion of a $2.5 million for public broadcasting facilities in western Kansas. She also noted a provision establishing in Kansas entertainer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program that mailed free books to children from birth until enrolled in school.
“How does a couple million dollars show up in the budget for a radio station?” Tyson asked. “What about all the other radio stations? I’ve got some great ones in my district that I would like to support.”
Tyson questioned the decision of House and Senate budget negotiators to reallocate $49 million in proposed property tax relief that went unclaimed by businesses shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the website put in place by the Kelly administration t0 solicit applications was so convoluted it deterred people.
“It is a reflection of the poor application, the poor administration when we pass policy and we can’t get that money where it was intended to go,” Tyson said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.