Kansas Lawmakers Leave Disaster Payments Hanging

May 17, 2010

As spring storms march across Kansas, the state still has unfinished business and unpaid bills for severe weather that wreaked havoc over the last decade.

The bill is more than $27 million and represents the state’s share of disaster payments owed to cities, counties and utilities for the costs incurred in recovering from the storms.

Kansas legislators kicked the issue around repeatedly in their budget debates, eventually agreeing to contribute $10.2 million of the amount it owes. But that still leaves $16.8 million of the total that the state expected to spend in the coming fiscal year.

“This was a casualty of a very difficult budget process. It’s a disappointment,” said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican. “This was all about setting priorities. This wasn’t one that the majority felt was at the top of the list.”

The open disasters date to February 2007 and include the tornadoes in Greensburg and Chapman, several winter storms and flooding in southeast Kansas.

When a disaster is declared, the federal government agrees to reimburse up to 75 percent of the costs, with state and local units expected to contribute 25 percent. The costs include snow or debris removal and rebuilding of infrastructure. The disaster declarations also can trigger the release of loans to help rebuild properties.

A large portion of the state share is owed to rural electric cooperatives who experienced significant damage to their infrastructure by winter weather.

Gov. Mark Parkinson’s budget called for $5.2 million in state general funds to be used for paying disaster costs. The House added another $5 million during its debate. Combined with federal funds, the state expects to disburse some $102 million in 2011, according to Legislative Research Department fiscal staff.

Kansas could still make additional payments in $10 million increments if approved by the governor and a committee of legislative leaders later this year.

“If a need is identified beyond the scope of budgeted funds, the governor will work with the state finance council to fulfill our obligations to the best of our abilities,” said Parkinson spokesman Seth Bundy.

However, officials are expecting the total state share to increase this year because of previous disasters that are still being calculated, potentially pushing the Kansas contribution upward by an additional $13 million, not counting damage from recent storms or those yet to strike.

“We will have more disasters. We live in Kansas,” said Rep. Lee Tafanelli, an Ozawkie Republican. “The state of Kansas said in the past that we would stand up and pay to help these people.”

Tafanelli, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said there were many discretionary spending items that were included that never got a full hearing.

“We fund a lot of other things. But when we have a requirement that we have to pay, we ignore it like it’s going to go away,” he said.

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