Rep. John Ewy, a Republican from Jetmore, is now 66 and has spent most of his life in the area around Larned State Hospital, one of two public facilities for Kansans with severe mental illness.
“It used to be the place to work,” Ewy said. “Now it’s the place to work if you can’t find anything else.”
The hospital employs about 1,000 people when fully staffed, Ewy said, which ranks it with the cattle yards in Dodge City and Garden City among the biggest employers in southwest Kansas.
But the facility is rarely fully staffed any more. And if the Legislature can’t agree on a tax increase to end the now historically long session, the available staffing positions at Larned State Hospital could drop.
Shawn Sullivan, the budget director for Gov. Sam Brownback, told legislators this week that if they don’t raise $406 million in new tax revenue, the budget gap will be closed with across-the-board cuts.
Those budget cuts would include funding for the two state mental hospitals and the two state facilities for Kansans with developmental disabilities, Sullivan said.
The proposed cuts have legislators feeling some pressure to get a tax deal done.
In line for the biggest cut: Larned State Hospital, at $2.7 million, which Ewy said is untenable.
“It can’t take a $2.7 million cut,” Ewy said.
The facility’s current budget is about $60 million per year. Ewy said that has not been adequate to provide salaries that would compel enough qualified people to come work in the southwestern part of the state.
Larned is short of registered nurses, he said, and very short of psychiatrists.
Ewy said he’s been told about nurses coming to work so sick they were vomiting and others working 24 hours straight.
“That’s dangerous,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Ewy said that earlier in the session, the House Appropriations Committee was looking at state jobs that had been vacant for six months or more as an area of the budget ripe for cutting.
He was among those who urged the committee to leave state hospitals, specifically Larned, out of that equation.
“I said, ‘No, leave it there — they are trying to fill those slots,’” Ewy said.
Ewy and the House have passed a budget that would do so, but they haven’t passed a tax plan that can adequately fund that budget.
Some movement in tax negotiations
House members thus far don’t seem keen on a Senate-passed plan that includes an end to sales tax exemptions for nonprofits, including more than 100 hospitals.
House leaders were trying to find a solution Wednesday — one that would remove or revise most of the policy items its members find objectionable.
Republicans led by Rep. Mark Hutton who had been holding out for some restoration of business income tax appeared willing to cave to the Senate plan that doesn’t include it. That makes the plan more viable, but still does not guarantee 63 House votes.
The new fiscal year starts July 1, and with every day that a fully funded budget for that year is not passed, Sullivan’s proposed across-the-board cuts become less theoretical.
In addition to the cuts at Larned, they would include a $770,000 cut to Osawatomie State Hospital — the state’s other mental health facility — a $675,000 cut to Parsons State Hospital and Training Center, and a $590,000 cut to the Kansas Neurological Institute.
Osawatomie has been beset by problems for more than a year. Donna Darner, a retired director of nursing at that hospital who now is guardian of a patient there, said the facility already is understaffed at its current budget.
She expressed anger that lawmakers would even consider further cuts as they continue to receive pay for each day of the dragging session.
“What in the hell do they think they’re doing?” Darner asked. “How can they be talking about cutting schools and cutting the state hospitals and then not take away from themselves? If they’re not smart enough to get themselves out of this mess, they don’t deserve to get paid.”
Legislators taking threat of cuts seriously
Kansas Neurological Institute (KNI) and Parsons State Hospital serve Kansans with serious developmental and intellectual disabilities. They fall under the administration of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.
Sullivan, former KDADS secretary, said he would allow the agency’s current leadership to decide how to make the across-the-board cuts if they are needed.
Steve Gieber, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, said it’s logical to think that would mean cuts to staffing, because payroll represents the bulk of the hospitals’ budgets.
Gieber said layoffs of direct care staff could put lives at risk at KNI and Parsons.
“The people at KNI have very high medical needs, and the people at Parsons tend to have significant behavioral challenges,” Gieber said. “The hospitals’ not having adequate staff puts them at risk.”
Some House members said they think the across-the-board cuts that Sullivan outlined are meant to compel certain legislators to vote for a tax increase.
But Rep. Lane Hemsley, a Topeka Republican whose district includes KNI, said he’s not operating under that assumption.
“I view any proposed tax increase or budget cut seriously,” he said. “I don’t view them as veiled threats.”
Hemsley said he has toured KNI, where most residents need assistance to perform basic daily tasks like eating.
He said he doesn’t know enough about the facility budget to determine the ramifications of a $590,000 cut, but he’s “wary of cutting services for society’s most vulnerable.”
“They’re people and they matter,” Hemsley said, his voice rising.
He’s open to voting for a tax increase to stave off the cuts, but only if he knows it has enough House votes to become the final solution.
“If we have to pull the trigger, I’ll light up the (voting) board,” Hemsley said.
Rep. Richard Proehl, a Republican from Parsons, said he thought the House had that kind of bill last week when Hutton’s proposal went to the floor.
It would have taxed business income that was exempted in 2012 at 2.7 percent — less than some House Republicans wanted and more than others wanted.
But Proehl’s vote was one of only 27 for the plan. That leaves him in the position to either vote for the sales tax-heavy Senate proposal that still exempts some 300,000 businesses from income taxes or risk cuts to a Parsons state facility that he says can’t afford them.
“I’m very disappointed we can’t sit down and come up with some kind of compromise,” Proehl said.
— Dave Ranney of the KHI News Service contributed to this story.