By Jim McLean
February 3, 2016
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has given lawmakers a budget that balances on paper.
But it remains to be seen whether legislators will agree to the complex formula of spending reductions, budget transfers and administrative changes that Brownback is proposing to erase a projected shortfall of nearly $200 million in the budget year that begins July 1.
Lobbyists representing several groups and causes are lining up in opposition to many of the changes.
Highway contractors and other groups that support T-WORKS, the state’s multi-year transportation program, are protesting the governor’s plan to take another $25 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation to shore up the general fund budget, noting that the $1.4 billion diverted since 2010 has already crippled the department’s ability to repair and maintain the state’s roads and bridges.
Some health care and mental health providers are opposing the administration’s proposed requirement that they use “step therapy” when prescribing drugs to patients enrolled in KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program. The change would save an estimated $10.6 million a year, according to administration officials, by requiring providers to prescribe less costly drugs unless they can justify more expensive alternatives.
Advocates for the Parents as Teachers program are objecting to the Brownback administration’s plan to means test participants so that federal welfare funds can be used to cover the $12.3 million annual cost of the program, which is administered by the Kansas Department of Education and local school districts.
Wendy Webb, coordinator of the PAT program in the Blue Valley School District, opposes the change because she thinks it will transform what was intended to be a program for all parents and children into a welfare program used predominantly by low-income families.
“Means testing would potentially decimate many (PAT) programs,” Webb said Wednesday in testimony to the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “In the Blue Valley district, less than 2 percent of the families currently served would meet the economic criteria.”
Even so, Webb said, 80 percent of the families in the Blue Valley program meet other “risk criteria” for participation. Webb said the program helps families address a host of circumstances beyond poverty that can affect a child’s performance or ability to learn, from domestic violence and substance abuse to disabilities that otherwise might go undetected.
Several members of the committee defended the proposal, saying it’s fair during tight budget times for the state to ask families that can afford to help pay for the program to do so.
“You have parents with means who have risk factors, so the question is should they or should they not pay something,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, and chairman of the committee.
Proposed changes to early childhood education programs also are drawing opposition.
The governor’s budget transfers $57.3 million from the Kansas Endowment for Youth (KEY) fund to the state general fund. Typically, the money generated by the settlement of a multi-state lawsuit against the nation’s major tobacco companies would flow into the Children’s Initiatives Fund (CIF) and then be allocated to early childhood initiatives recommend by the Children’s Cabinet.
Brownback and his allies in the Legislature say the transfer is intended to increase accountability and consolidate early childhood programs in the state department of education.
But supporters of the current structure fear the change will lead to money being siphoned from children’s programs in the same way it’s been taken from the transportation.
“We are experiencing, as you know all too well, repeated shortfalls in revenue,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of Kansas Action for Children. “These funds will be vulnerable in the state general fund.”
Cotsoradis said even though it appears funding for children’s programs will not be reduced in the 2017 budget, “We know that is not necessarily a reality in the years to come.”
Defending the governor’s proposal, Masterson said advocates are mistaken if they believe the current structure somehow protects their funding.
“It’s no more than a perception,” he said. “I would contend that with more visibility through the SGF (state general fund) the programs would actually be safer.”
There also is opposition to the governor’s proposed transfer of the infant and toddler’s preschool education program from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to the department of education.
The so-called tiny-K program helps prepare children with disabilities to start school.
The committee is expected to start its work on the budget next week.