- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas would give prison officers a pay raise, attempt to boost staffing at mental hospitals and grant lawmakers greater oversight of spending at the state’s largest university under a budget-balancing plan a legislative committee approved Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that makes dozens of changes in the state’s $16.1 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to close a projected deficit of nearly $200 million. The measure goes next to the full House, which could debate it next week.

The Republican-dominated committee’s plan includes most of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposals to close the gap by juggling funds and capturing unanticipated savings.

But the committee departed from the governor’s proposals by including $2.4 million for a 2.5 percent pay raise for uniformed corrections officers at state prisons, starting in the summer. The panel also added a total of $3 million to the current budgets of the state’s mental hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie to help them increase staffing and tackle other issues.

Members also added a provision to show their unhappiness with an arrangement that allowed the University of Kansas to obtain $327 million in out-of-state bonds last month for construction projects without the Legislature’s express approval. The university formed a nonprofit corporation, which then had the bonds issued through Wisconsin’s Public Finance Authority.

The budget typically gives universities the discretion to spend whatever they actually collect in tuition dollars. Under a provision from Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, if the University of Kansas collects extra tuition dollars or unanticipated revenues from other fees or special funds, it would have to get the Legislature’s permission to spend it.

“We have an obligation to protect taxpayers,” said Rep. Mark Kahrs, a Wichita Republican. “I don’t think anybody believes what happened is the right thing.”

University officials said the arrangement complies with Kansas law and shields the state from being liable for the debt. The university plans to lease the new buildings from the corporation.

Tim Caboni, the university’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said Thursday that the arrangement is an “innovative” way to finance the projects without additional tax dollars.

“In addition to hamstringing KU’s ability to make basic budgeting and financial transactions and serve Kansans, this amendment sends a signal nationally that Kansas is not a state that’s receptive to business and development,” Caboni said in an emailed statement.

Several committee members from both parties said lawmakers should have public hearings on such restrictions before imposing them.

“We don’t know the impact of this,” said Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Manhattan Democrat.

The proposals to increase pay for corrections officers and provide extra money to the state hospitals had bipartisan support.

Turnover among uniformed officers at state prisons has risen in recent years to nearly 30 percent, and some lawmakers view it as a public safety crisis. Officers’ starting pay is $13.61 an hour.

Meanwhile, a total of more than 350 positions are vacant at the two mental hospitals, according to the Department for Aging and Disability Services, or about 38 percent of the jobs. Osawatomie is about 45 minutes southwest of the Kansas City area; Larned is in western Kansas.

The extra $3 million also could help the state make up for lost federal funds. A survey critical of the Osawatomie hospital in November prompted the federal government to decertify it, costing the state between $500,000 and $1 million a month in federal funds.



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


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

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