KCK schools: State trying to balance budget on backs of children

As it struggles through the 110th day of a 90-day session, the Kansas Legislature is once again considering major cuts to education funding across the state. These cuts would have a devastating effect on the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools, reducing funding for the 2015-2016 school year by $10.8 million (which would be on top of the more than $2 million in cuts the district has already received).

“We were shocked when we heard that cuts of this magnitude were being discussed,” said David A. Smith, chief of communications and governmental affairs for the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools. “These proposed cuts, which come on top of reductions that came with the switch to Block Grant funding, would be devastating.”

In March, Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation that eliminated the school finance formula, and replaced it with a plan for Block Grants, which froze funding at 2014-2015 fiscal year levels for the next two years.

The current cuts are being proposed as the Kansas Legislature tries to close a more than $400 million budget deficit. So far, numerous proposals to raise the sales tax in order to close the deficit have failed in the Legislature by wide margins.

“Kansas has always been a state known for its strong public schools,” Smith said. “Now, in publications across the country, Kansas is being identified as a prime example of how not to budget. While the rest of the country is clear that the reason for the current deficit is the irresponsible tax cuts passed in 2012, the Kansas Legislature continues to talk about balancing the state budget on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens, its children.”

While the district has no contingency plan to deal with cuts of this magnitude, Superintendent Cynthia Lane intends to discuss the issue with the Board of Education at its regularly scheduled meeting tonight, Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 5:30 p.m. at the Central Office and Training Center, 2010 N. 59th St., Kansas City, Kan.
– from KCK schools

Medicaid expansion said to be off the table in tax and budget negotiations

Late-session attempt to make expansion a bargaining chip sidelined by other issues

by Jim McLean, KHI News Service

Legislators locked in increasingly tense discussions about how to balance the budget and end the longest legislative session in Kansas history say there is no longer any serious talk about expanding Medicaid eligibility this year.

“Given all the time we’ve wasted, it is incredibly disappointing that we couldn’t find the time to deal with this issue,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and the Legislature’s most vocal advocate of expansion.

Currently, non-disabled adults without children aren’t eligible for the state’s Medicaid program, called KanCare, no matter how poor they are.

Expansion would make all Kansan adults with incomes up to 138 percent of poverty eligible. That’s up to $16,105 of annual income for an individual and $32,913 for a family of four.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 324,000 Kansans age 19 to 64 have incomes that would qualify them for coverage under expansion. Of those, about 131,000 are uninsured.

For the third consecutive session, what appears to be a powerful coalition led by Kansas hospitals has failed to gain traction on the issue due in large part to its connection to the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans who control the Legislature continue to oppose.

GOP leaders blocked hearings on expansion during the 2013 and 2014 sessions. They allowed a hearing this year, but only to prevent expansion supporters from forcing a surprise vote on the House floor.

‘The problem at hand right now’
Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and vice chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said while the expansion issue deserves more consideration, it has been overtaken by circumstances. The budget and tax negotiations already are difficult and contentious. Adding Medicaid expansion to the mix would make it even harder to reach consensus on a plan to end the session.

“We want to just take care of the problem at hand right now and make sure that we don’t have to furlough state employees and that we fill this budget hole that we have,” Concannon said.

That may be the mindset of most legislators, but it hasn’t prevented several contentious issues from becoming part of the tax and budget negotiations. Proposals to impose what amounts to a lid on local property taxes, repeal hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax exemptions and provide tax credits to businesses that fund private school scholarships have been included in tax packages negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee.

Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican, is one of the few legislators still urging consideration of an expansion plan this session. He provided legislative leaders with an updated version of the Medicaid expansion plan developed by the Vision 2020 Committee, which he chairs. It would impose fees on a wide range of health providers to cover the cost of expansion and provide $39.1 million to help balance the fiscal year 2016 budget.

A week ago, Sloan said the plan was being discussed.

“It has not been dismissed out of hand,” he said.

But Concannon said the proposal quickly ran into opposition from the expansion supporters it was designed to appease because of the assessments it would have imposed on doctors, chiropractors, podiatrists, pharmacists, optometrists, nursing homes, hospitals and mental health providers.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to tax the very people who are providing the Medicaid care,” she said. “We have a hard enough time getting providers to participate in the Medicaid program.”

Polls find support for expansion
Cindy Samuelson, a spokesperson for the Kansas Hospital Association, said while the organization appreciated Sloan’s efforts to keep the issue alive, “We continue to stand by our study that expansion pays for itself.”

The hospital association’s study estimated that expansion would cost the state an additional $312 million over the next five years. But it also said that savings in other programs and tax revenue from jobs and economic activity associated with expansion would more than offset the additional cost to the state.

In addition to funding studies that document the economic benefits of expansion, KHA has paid for several statewide polls, each of which has found strong bipartisan support for it. The most recent, conducted in April by a firm that predominately works for Republican candidates, showed that 64 percent of likely Kansas voters supported expanding Medicaid eligibility, including 58 percent of the Republicans surveyed.

Support climbed to 69 percent when respondents were told that expansion would attract more than $2 billion in additional federal funding to the state. And it remained at 58 percent when the surveyors asked a series of questions that made it clear expansion was part of Obamacare.

“We were pleased to see that even using this language, Kansans overwhelmingly still supported KanCare expansion,” Samuelson said.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who chairs the House health committee, said the Kansans who responded to the survey don’t have access to all the information that he and other legislators have about the state budget and the cost of Medicaid expansion. Based on that information, Hawkins said he isn’t convinced that the costs would be as manageable as the hospital association and other supporters claim.

“It’s not the connection to Obamacare. For me, it’s really the cost,” Hawkins said, explaining that he believes the cost of expansion would be much higher than the hospital association estimates, more in the range of $125 million a year.

“We’re in a fiscal nightmare here,” Hawkins said, referring to the Legislature’s ongoing struggle to agree on a tax plan to raise the roughly $400 million necessary to balance the 2016 budget. “Adding that (expansion) would just compound things even more.”

Samuelson said hospitals will continue to lobby for KanCare expansion until the gavel falls on the session. But, she said, “In the unfortunate event that expansion does not occur this session, the hospital community will continue to push forward and explore options to develop a Kansas solution that will meet with the Legislature’s approval.”

The nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online.

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Piper school bond issue defeated

by Mary Rupert

The Piper School District bond issue was defeated today, 1,805 to 1,454.

Piper voters were asked to approve a maximum $67.5 million bond issue that would have included a new high school and renovations to the other schools. The “nos” had 55 percent of the vote.

Election Commissioner Bruce Newby said the mail-in election had “a decent turnout.”

He said ballots were mailed to 6,936 active registered voters in this election, and the ballots that were returned totaled 3,260, representing a 47 percent turnout.

When inactive voters are included in the totals, the turnout becomes 34.5 percent, he added.

About a year ago, Piper district voters approved an increase in the local option budget at an election held at the polls June 3, 2014, he said. There was less than 10 percent voter participation in that election, he added.

Piper Superintendent Tim Conrad said today that he was “disappointed” in the election results. He said the district will continue to develop a solution to accommodate growth. There was a lot of effort put into the campaign by those who were in favor of the bond issue.

He said while it is too early to tell what the next step will be for the district, he would expect the board and advisory groups to study where to go from here. Studies have found that Piper would need more classroom space in the future because of anticipated growth in enrollment.

“The problem’s not going to go away, unfortunately, with the growth,” he said. “We just have to regroup.”

Several years ago, voters in the district also defeated a large bond issue question, and after that, the district moved forward with smaller projects.

Conrad said the district would look at the feedback from the “no” voters to find out if the vote was mostly a feeling that they are overtaxed and feel they can’t afford the plan. Then the information could be used in the plans for the next steps for the district.

“We’ll use this as a litmus, so to speak, to gain more information and look to the future,” he said.

On another topic, the Piper school district, like many districts, is facing a reduction in state aid.

Next year the block grant reduction that was announced is projected to be $230,000 to $280,000 less in state aid, Conrad said.

However, district officials are also waiting for the legislative session to end to know the exact figures. Because the Legislature is still in session, cuts could even still be made to this year’s budget, he remarked.

The block grants start July 1 and are in effect for two years. With a reduction of state aid and enrollment growth projected in the Piper district, it has been necessary to make some reductions in the local district budget, he said.

The Piper district has made some reductions, tried to maintain some programs, and has reconfigured some existing contracts with leasing companies, he said. There have been some retirements and resignations, with replacement of staff, and there has not been a big reduction in personnel, he added.