Kansas Senate Moves To Protect Pensions, Mental Hospitals
The Kansas Senate approved proposals aimed at preventing the state from shorting its contributions to public pensions or having private companies run its two mental hospitals, part of a larger plan it also advanced Thursday night to balance the next state budget.
Senators added the pension and hospital measures as amendments to a bill that would eliminate a projected deficit of nearly $200 million in the state's $16.1 billion spending blueprint for the fiscal year beginning July 1. They approved the entire bill, 24-15.
The Senate's debate came only hours after the House approved its own budget-balancing plan, 68-56. Legislative leaders expected to appoint negotiators to draft the final version of a plan.
The House's bill has a provision that says the state can't spend any money on selling or turning over the operations of its mental hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie over to private companies unless the Legislature approves the idea first. The measure added to the Senate's bill is similar.
"It will provide some oversight," said Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican.
There are dozens of staff vacancies at the hospital in Larned, in western Kansas, and Osawatomie, about 45 miles south of the Kansas City area. A critical survey in November prompted the federal government to decertify the Osawatomie hospital over safety issues. The state is losing between $500,000 and $1 million a month in federal funds.
"I don't think the state has the depth to run a hospital," Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said in arguing against the proposal. He said government regulations making running a hospital far more complex than it once was.
The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has said privatizing the hospital is an option, but area legislators oppose the idea.
Both chambers' bills contain most of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's proposals to close the budget gap by shuffling funds and capturing unanticipated savings. Both also assume the state will reap $25 million from selling off the assets of a decade-old economic development agency set up to nurture emerging bioscience companies.
Republicans contend both plans close the budget gap while still meeting crucial needs. Democrats said the shuffling represents poor fiscal management.
Senators also amended their budget bill to prevent Brownback from balancing the budget through June 2017 by reducing or delaying payments to the state's public pension system.
The bill plan initially would have allowed the governor to delay up to $100 million worth of contributions to the public pension system to bolster the budget. The state would have had up to two years to make up for the delayed contributions but would have paid 8 percent interest.
But that idea drew bipartisan criticism. Denning initially supported the idea but said negative comments led him to raise "the white flag."