AP – House strips funds for primary from proposed budget

House strips funds for primary from proposed budget
By John Hanna – Associated Press Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Topeka – Kansas might not have a presidential primary in February after the House voted Thursday to strip funding for the special election from a proposed state budget.

The vote was 85-34 for an amendment to remove the money from the secretary of state’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Before that action, the primary had appeared to have bipartisan support.

House members gave first-round approval on voice votes to three bills containing more than $12 billion in spending for the next fiscal year, the bulk of the budget, and final action is expected today. The spending plan contained in the three bills is largely an alternative to the House’s GOP majority to one Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius offered in January.

Most legislators’ discussions about the primary have centered on when the election should be held. But many House members think the $2 million required to cover costs associated with the election could be better spent.

“A primary is essentially nothing more than a beauty contest,” said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. ” Iowa has a caucus system; Iowa doesn’t have a primary. They get the attention because they’re first.”

Off the sidelines
If the state doesn’t have a primary, the Republican and Democratic parties will have caucuses to allocate delegates to their national nominating conventions. That’s been the practice in most years.

The state had a primary in 1980 and then began scheduling them every four years, starting in 1992. But legislators canceled the 1996, 2000 and 2004 elections, either because the races weren’t competitive enough or because the state faced financial problems.

“I believe our citizens have been forced to sit on the sidelines of democracy for long enough,” Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh said after the House vote. “During what looks to be a contentious primary season, we owe it to our constituents to allow them the opportunity to weigh in on this important national debate.”

For backers of a primary, the attraction is greater participation by Kansans. Caucuses in 2004 drew about 2,100 participants, according to the secretary of state’s office, while more than 373,000 Kansans cast ballots in the 1992 primary.

In theory, the state could refuse to spend the money on the primary and still have the election, placing the burden on the state’s 105 counties to pay for it. But that has never happened.

“Americans each year spend $2 billion on Easter candy,” said Rep. Benjamin Hodge, R-Overland Park , quoting a statistic from columnist George Will. “I think we can afford $2 million to be a part of an important process.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee endorsed funding the primary, and that chamber expects to debate and approve its own budget next week.

The final version will be written by House and Senate negotiators, and legislative leaders hope to pass it before lawmakers begin their spring break on April 4. Then, lawmakers will adopt one final budget bill after they return April 25 to wrap up their business for the year.

Budget differences
When legislators finish the new budget, it’s likely to be about $12.4 billion, roughly the same size as the current one, though there will be big shifts in funding. The budget for fiscal 2008 will contain an increase in spending on public schools, in keeping with a plan approved last year, while spending on highway projects, which fluctuates from year to year, is expected to drop by about 24 percent.

Republicans described the House’s budget as a fiscally responsible plan that reins in spending. But it’s not finished, because GOP leaders deferred dozens of decisions. For example, it contains no aid for vocational colleges – normally a $40 million item – so that lawmakers can examine how it’s distributed.

Another big issue for House members was raises and bonuses for state employees. Democrats didn’t like a plan that GOP lawmakers inserted into the budget instead of Sebelius’ proposal for a 4 percent increase.

Both her plan and the Republican alternative would cost the state more than $86 million, but they distribute the dollars differently.

The GOP plan would grant state workers a 1 percent pay raise and a one-time $1,450 bonus during the next fiscal year.

About 1,500 of the state’s 41,200 workers would receive an additional 5 percent pay increase because their salaries are at least 25 percent below market rates.

Republican leaders contend the plan represents a transition between the state’s current – and in their minds, outdated – civil service pay grid and a new, fairer one. Democrats argue that workers would rather see their salaries increase permanently than receive bonuses that might not be offered in future years.