Archive for Thursday, May 5, 2005

Lawmakers OK budget, end year

Session finishes with questions still swirling around school finance law

May 5, 2005

— Kansas lawmakers early Sunday approved the final part of an $11.4 billion state budget that included a pay raise for state employees of 1.25 percent in July and another 1.25 percent in January.

Approval of the spending bill concluded the Legislature's 2005 session with only a ceremonial end scheduled for Friday, May 20. The Senate adjourned at 2:20 a.m. Sunday and the House, 30 minutes later.

Senate budget negotiators had fought for a 2.5 percent pay raise but House leaders bargained it down.

When the final numbers were tallied, Democrats blamed House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, for the smaller pay raise.

"I cannot believe that the speaker, who represents part of Topeka and a large number of state employees, would participate in blocking this increase," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said.

But Mays said the final pay raise represented a compromise. "We have a committee process that, many times, it doesn't go the way I want it to. That's the way democracy works."

But Hensley didn't buy Mays' excuse. "As speaker, Doug Mays has the ability to encourage his members to support state employees," he said.

The measure now goes to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for her consideration.

The two 1.25 percent pay raises was the same position the Legislature had adopted during the first part of the 2005 session.

In the Senate, Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, voted against the budget, while Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, voted for it.

Francisco said she disagreed with how the pay raise was implemented. Under the bill, the first six months of the raise must be funded through savings within state agencies.

"That will work for some agencies but not for others," she said.

Pine said he voted for the budget and pay raise because he felt that was the most the state could afford.

"You don't get everything that you want," he said.

The Senate approved the budget 28-11.

In the House, the measure was approved 89-31 with state Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, voting for it and Reps. Marti Crow and Candy Ruff, both D-Leavenworth, voting against it.

School finance debate continues

As the 2005 wrap-up session, which started Wednesday, concluded, it will probably be remembered for what didn't happen, and the continued debate over school finance.

Legislators didn't bring up any proposals to expand gambling despite fiscal pressures brought about by increased school funding and increased social service needs.

On the school front, the Legislature is facing a showdown with the Kansas Supreme Court, which has ruled the state has failed to provide enough funds for schools and distribute the monies fairly. Republicans, who hold significant majorities in the House and Senate, pushed through a $127 million increase for schools.

Critics say the increase in the $2.7 billion school finance system is too small, and a provision that allows local districts to increase local property taxes by nearly $500 million will widen the disparities between rich and poor districts.

The state Supreme Court has ordered oral arguments on the Republican plan for May 11, and lawmakers have been jockeying for position to get their attorneys before the court. The request was turned down Monday. Instead, the court said the lawmakers could present written briefs to the court stating their case. The deadline for the briefs is also May 11.

Republicans have asked the court to allow state Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, and state Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, to address the court. Both legislators are attorneys and vice-chairmen of legislative education committees.

Attorneys for the plaintiff school districts had called the move an unfair attempt to extend the state's allotted time to argue and to provide self-serving testimony without the opportunity to cross-examine.

Because of the move by Republicans, Democrats also had requested permission to address the Supreme Court. "If the court should decide to hear from those who supported the bill, we feel that it is important for the concerns raised by opponents also to be heard," state Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said.

Despite the major school finance debate having concluded earlier in the session, the subject continued to arise during the wrap-up session.

Senators held a lengthy debate Saturday before defeating a provision sought by Vratil and O'Neal that would have required future school finance litigants to clear a higher hurdle to prove their case.

"It limits the state's responsibility for education," said state Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington. The measure was losing 16-23 before many of those who spoke in favor of it jumped to the other side and the bill was defeated with only seven votes in favor of it.

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