- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas legislators approved a plan Wednesday for patching a hole in the next state budget and confirmed Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s secretary of administration despite questions about a $20 million state construction project.

The Senate also advanced a proposal designed to shorten the length of the GOP-dominated Legislature’s annual sessions.

A look at significant legislative developments Wednesday.

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BUDGET-BALANCING PLAN

The budget-balancing plan eliminates a projected deficit of nearly $200 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 by making dozens of changes in the state’s $16.1 billion spending blueprint.

The bill includes most of Brownback’s proposals for closing the gap largely by shuffling funds and capturing unanticipated savings. It also anticipates the state selling off the assets of an economic development agency that nurtures emerging bioscience companies.

Uniformed corrections officers at state prisons would get a 2.5 percent raise.

The House approved the plan, 68-53. The Senate vote was 22-16. The bill goes next to Brownback, who has the power to veto individual items.

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THIN BUDGET MARGIN

Legislative researchers’ projections indicate that the budget-balancing plan would leave the state with only $6 million in cash reserves on June 30 and only $86 million at the end of June 2017.

Democrats predicted the budget will soon be out of balance again. The state’s tax collections have fallen short of expectations for 19 of the past 25 months.

The state has struggled to balance its budget since Republican lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to help stimulate the economy.

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ADMINISTRATION SECRETARY

The Senate voted 37-2 to confirm Brownback’s appointment of Sarah Shipman as secretary of administration.

The department faced sharp questions over its plans to build a new power plant for the Statehouse and four nearby government office buildings. The project includes tearing down a fifth building, the 1950s-era Docking State Office Building west of the Capitol.

The agency is financing the project through a 15-year lease-purchase agreement signed in December with Bank of America, paying 2.32 percent interest. Some lawmakers are upset because the Legislature didn’t approve the agreement before it was signed.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and Sen. Laura Kelly, both Topeka Democrats, voted against Shipman. Hensley said he believes Shipman misled legislators about the power plant project.

And Kelly said, “I’m not sure she was totally forthcoming.”

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, said senators ultimately separated Shipman from their concerns about the project.

“She went around very diligently and talked to senators who had questions,” Bruce said.

Shipman was the Department of Administration’s top lawyer and deputy secretary before she began serving as interim secretary in July 2015. Brownback said in a statement that she is “deeply knowledgeable” about department operations.

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SHORTENING SESSIONS

Senators gave first-round approval Wednesday on a voice vote to a bill that would limit the Legislature’s annual sessions to 100 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years.

The proposal came after the 2015 annual session lasted a record 114 days.

The state constitution doesn’t limit sessions in odd-numbered years, though the tradition is for leaders to schedule 90 days. Sessions in even-numbered years are limited to 90 days.

Legislators still could vote to extend their sessions longer. Some senators thought the bill unnecessary, but supporters said it would promote efficiency.

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SENATE COMMITTEE FUSS

Senate President Susan Wagle is resisting pressure from fellow Republicans to reinstate the former chairwoman of the chamber’s Public Health and Welfare Committee.

“I’m comfortable,” Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said of her decision last week to oust GOP Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Shawnee, as chairwoman.

Seventeen of the Senate’s 32 Republicans and 26 of the House’s 97 GOP members signed separate letters Tuesday urging Wagle to reinstate Pilcher-Cook.

Wagle removed Pilcher-Cook last week after Pilcher-Cook tried to force a Senate debate on expanding the state’s Medicaid coverage for needy and disabled residents in line with the federal health care overhaul.

Pilcher-Cook wanted to kill the idea. Wagle said the move flouted Senate rules.

Asked about the campaign on her behalf, Pilcher-Cook said, “I’m hoping we just need time.”

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SEX EDUCATION BILL

Public schools would be required to get written permission from a parent or guardian before a student could participate in a sex education class under a bill the House Education Committee has approved.

Chairman Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican, said Wednesday that the so-called “opt-in” sex education bill is designed to give parents more control.

The measure was approved Tuesday and goes next to the House for debate.

Most of the state’s 286 local school districts have “opt-out” policies in which a child takes sex education unless a parent objects.

“Many students who might need it the most won’t get it because their parents are disaffected,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat who opposes the bill.

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RESETTLING REFUGEES

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee heard testimony in favor of a bill that would block the resettlement of refugees in communities that lack sufficient services or local law enforcement.

Under the measure, the governor and local governments would determine whether a community has the resources to accommodate the arrival of refugees.

The hearing was set to continue Thursday.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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