Bill excludes state worker pay raise, Medicaid expansion, conflict of interest reform
TOPEKA — Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson convinced colleagues in the Kansas Senate to endorse a 3.25% budget cut at state agencies without linkages to public safety, K-12 schools or health care after those same senators rejected her amendment making a reduction nearly twice as large.
Tyson quoted from Tom Cruise movies, lauded a similar across-the-board approach deployed by Gov. Sam Brownback a decade ago and expressed confidence officials in the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly could find savings to meet the 3.25% or $97 million target as well as a 6.25% or $190 million cut. She said her goal was to shrink the proposed increase in state spending in the fiscal year starting July 1.
“We did this a few years ago — it was actually in 2012. It worked quite well,” Tyson said. “This just asks them to dig a little deeper, especially with all the massive increases we’ve had over the years in spending.”
Her slimmed down version of budget austerity didn’t evoke much debate as the Senate worked on details of Senate Bill 155, which outlined $23 billion in spending in the upcoming fiscal year. The overall blueprint didn’t include the governor’s recommendation for a 5% raise for state workers nor did it allow for expansion of Medicaid to lower-income Kansas without access to affordable coverage.
The Senate is scheduled to take final action Monday on the budget bill that pushed a series of thorny issues to the end of the 2023 session. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to resume vetting of its version of the state budget Tuesday.
Tyson’s reduction of $190 million ran into bipartisan opposition as Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, and Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, argued across-the-board budget reductions were messy, didn’t take into account distinctions among state agencies and frequently led to unintended consequences. They agreed Tyson’s idea would undermine months of work by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“We’re disenfranchising that whole process,” Pittman said. “Just by having a broad brush to make a cut doesn’t seem prudent at this time. We’re not in desperate times.”
Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, said the Senate budget committee led by Billinger could benefit from amendments proposed by lawmakers not caught up in the demands of special interests.
“It’s helping them complete the process,” Steffen said. “They deal with an incredible amount of outside influence that makes their budgeting process so difficult. Sometimes to step in and be the voice of reason is very helpful.”
Diversity, equity squeeze
Sen. Usha Reddi, D-Manhattan, offered an amendment — overwhelmingly defeated by the GOP-led Senate — to strike from the bill a prohibition on public colleges and universities making inquiries of faculty, students and contractors about diversity, equity and inclusion or “DEI.”
“I don’t see the need for it,” Reddi said. “In fact, I see it holding us back from progress.”
The budget provision inserted into the bill at behest of Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, excluded private, religious-affiliated colleges in Kansas from the mandate. Claeys asserted DEI was part of a “rotten tree” of reverse discrimination, was a feature of “woke” politics” touching on critical race theory and compelled people to swear an oath to a controversial ideology.
Pittman, the Democratic senator from Leavenworth, said the attack on diversity, equity and inclusion didn’t belong in a budget bill. The idea should be part of a stand-alone bill subject to House and Senate committee hearings, he said.
“It’s unnecessary. It’s reactionary. It has unintended consequences. It’s ill-defined,” Pittman said. “It’s basically saying, ‘no ideologies.’ Then it speaks to diversity, equity and inclusion as one of those, but there are other ideologies out there. We could name probably 100 of them.”
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said Pittman was dead wrong. He said universities and colleges had no right to impose litmus tests on faculty, students or contractors on diversity, equity and inclusion or to coerce individuals to adhere to a liberal social agenda. The coordinated assault on individual expression via DEI didn’t serve to advance the cause of higher education, he said.
“We aren’t looking at who is the best qualified. We are checking boxes,” Thompson said.
Conflict of interest?
Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat from Baldwin City, raised a touchy issue by offering an amendment prohibiting for two years any House or Senate member of the Legislature from also collecting a state paycheck as an employee or contract laborer from offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and insurance commissioner.
Holland’s proposal was aimed at Claeys, the Salina Republican hired by Attorney General Kris Kobach to serve as a senior adviser in the office of attorney general. Holland said he acknowledged Kansas had a “citizen Legislature” and he wasn’t suggesting “anything nefarious” had transpired. Holland said he was concerned people working simultaneously for the legislative and executive branches could get tangled in conflicts of interest.
“We have reached a point in legislative matters that we have to ask ourselves: Do we have enough of a conflict of interest to question the integrity of the legislation?” Holland said.
The issue of regular jobs held by legislators had surfaced in the past, including that of former Topeka Democratic Sen. Anthony Hensley who worked for decades as a K-12 teacher in Topeka.
In addition, state Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, R-Perry, was a special agent with the Kansas Securities Commission. Rep. Lane Hemsley, R-Topeka, worked as the Kansas Dental Board’s executive director. Controversy about Hemsley’s job led to a nonbinding opinion from then-Attorney General Derek Schmidt that said Kansas had no legal impediment to double dipping.
Claeys, who was absent from Thursday’s budget debate in the Senate, said he cleared his hiring by Kobach with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
“The senator (Holland) didn’t share these concerns when two previous legislators worked in the executive branch,” Claeys said. “I do appreciate that the senator made it clear that an act of the Legislature would be required to prohibit serving in both branches.”
Claeys said he would support such a bill if the ban also applied to legislators serving as city commissioners, university employees and public school staff.
Medicaid + salary hike
Pittman, the Leavenworth Democrat, offered a unique blend of policy in an attempt to convince Senate Republicans to embrace Medicaid expansion.
His amendment, soundly defeated, would have brought hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to Kansas by elevating availability of Medicaid services. His idea was to maneuver through the state budget in a way that freed up $65 million to give state employees a 5% raise.
“It is high time we expand KanCare,” Pittman said. “It’s high time we support our public employees.”
Billinger, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said legislation providing for Medicaid expansion should go through the normal committee process. The Senate hasn’t conducted a Medicaid expansion hearing in the past two years, a reflection of GOP opposition to adding as many as 150,000 people to the Medicaid roll.
The Senate accepted an amendment from Democratic Sen. Pat Pettey of Kansas City to allow eight community mental health centers seeking special certification to access state funding immediately rather than wait until July 2024. The state had so far allowed a maximum of nine community health centers to proceed with the transition. The Senate rejected Pettey’s amendment to increase child care funding by $1 million.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a former Republican and a 2022 independent candidate for governor, proposed a change in Senate rules that would curtail influence of Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. Masterson stripped Pyle of all committee assignments, and some GOP lawmakers blamed Pyle’s campaign for helping Kelly win re-election against Republican nominee Derek Schmidt.
Pyle’s amendment — it failed 9-17 — would reconstitute the Senate’s organization, calendar and rules committee that was dissolved about 10 years ago. His new leadership committee would be served by the six Republicans with the longest tenure in the Senate. The Senate’s president, vice president and majority leader would be nonvoting members of the committee.
This committee would be allowed to close its meetings to the public for the purpose of appointing members of all Senate committees, including the chairs and vice chairs. The committee also would be responsible for appointing members of special committees.
“I believe the Founding Fathers would support this,” Pyle said. “I really believe in limited government.”