Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Cindy Holscher, Rep. Jan Kessinger and Sen. Pat Pettey are scheduled to send updates this week. Here’s Rep. Kessinger’s filing:
The legislature is kicking into gear as the final day for committee bill introduction is Friday, Feb. 9, and we have worked many bills in committees and a few on the House floor. Still, all the activity is done under the looming shadow of how to create a school funding formula that will pass constitutional muster by the Kansas Supreme Court. That affects all decisions on budgets and programs…yet won’t be decided until the very end of the session, if then.
The timeline for creating the education budget is pretty much in reverse logical order. By the end of February, the Attorney General (who defends the legislature in court) would like to have the plan in order to allow sufficient time to prepare a defense. A study on the economics of education and what is adequate funding is hoped to give some hard numbers to ideal school funding, but won’t be complete until mid-March. The legislature should complete the state budget in late April, and the Supreme Court has given the legislature a deadline of April 30, to submit its new plan.
The impact this great unknown on budgeting has already raised its head as the Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, considered the budget for the judiciary. The judicial system in Kansas (judges and support staff) requested more than $19 million in additional monies to fund raises for judges and staff.
Across the state, judicial staff are paid non-competitive wages for similar positions in the private sector. Rather than matching what judicial clerks can earn in private law practices, the salary for clerks rivals pay for unskilled labor in many cases. We have heard from jurisdictions where there is a food bank in the courthouse to assist clerical staff. Judges in Kansas were shown to be lower paid than in nearby states. In the State of the Judiciary speech, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss called for more funds for salaries.
These are compelling arguments for increased salaries, and an allocation of $19 million was included in the sub-committee report to the Appropriations Committee. I support the idea of increasing pay in the judicial branch for the underpaid. When the budget came before the committee, I asked where the money would come from. The public and most of the legislature do not have an appetite for another tax increase, so the additional money must come from budget cuts, or excess revenue if there is any after the final budget including educational funding. The salary boost was removed by the committee after lengthy debate, with the hope that we can re-visit it once we have a better handle on how much money is available after paying the other priority increases.
It is part of a frustrating process to shoot in the dark, especially when dealing with budgets. We must take a hard look at what cuts can be made in order to fund worthy areas, such as salaries for underpaid state employees who are essentially training at the state, then depart to the private sector for more money.
In the coming weeks, I will be analyzing budgets and seeking ways to spend wisely, with priorities. The days of setting a budget based on what was spent last year must come to an end.