Kansas lawmakers approve vaccine passport ban, judicial branch pay raise in final budget bill

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means Committee confer on the House floor Thursday. The final piece of the state budget passed Friday evening.

Lawmakers sent Gov. Laura Kelly a budget package on Friday that bans vaccine passports after a back-and-forth over whether the state should go further in limiting the controversial technology.

The proposal also includes more funding for higher education and judicial branch employee salaries, although Republicans balked at a broader, across-the-board pay raise for public sector workers.

Vaccine passport ban creates controversy

But the most controversial component was the ban on vaccine passports, which are electronic records allowing residents to prove their vaccination status and, potentially, gain entry to sporting events, concert venues and businesses.

The concept hasn't taken hold in Kansas, and Kelly said last month that she had no interest in any state-sanctioned use of the technology.

More:As debate about vaccine passports rages, what might the technology mean for Kansas?

But Republicans have maintained a ban is necessary, noting it infringes on the rights of Kansans.

"If I walk into Wal-Mart and say I have to wear a mask, that's not a problem because I can take it on and take it back off or go down the road," said Sen. Richard Hildebrand, R-Galena. "But if someone is going to require me to go to Wal-Mart and be vaccinated, I have a problem with that."

But there is still uncertainty about how the ban will work.

The language was modeled after a similar provision in Florida and it bars vaccine passports be required "in a place accessible to the general public." That could include requiring the technology to attend a public university or to go to a sporting event.

It is not clear, however, that the measure would apply to private businesses or if the ban would be limited to entities receiving public dollars. 

Senators pushed for a second ban to be included in a larger deal related to COVID-19 compensation for businesses, but their counterparts in the Kansas House wouldn't budge on its inclusion.

Sen. Kellie Warren, R-Leawood, said the budget provision had shortcomings, pointing specifically to uncertainty over whether a passport could be required at a grocery store or health care facility, for instance.

"It does part of what Kansans expect but not all of it," she said.

The Kansas Chamber hasn't taken a position on the passports and what a ban might mean for private businesses.

Judges and court employees statewide will be in line for a pay raise under the final piece of the state budget, approved Friday evening by the Kansas Legislature.

Pay raise limited to judicial branch workers

Members opted not to pass an across the board pay raise for state employees, with Republicans concerned that it would send a bad message to taxpayers, many of whom dealt with job losses or business closures this year.

"State employees, they were sent home, they received their paychecks on time and in the full amounts," said Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina. "But there were a lot of folks who were stuck with the Kansas Department of Labor, and they went through a sort of hell. So I think it's really difficult to tell those people that they need to give us their money so that we can get people who were held harmless a raise" 

The 2.5% raise is a longtime wish for Kelly and would have cost the state $14.5 million. State employees did receive two consecutive years of raises in 2017 and 2018 after several years without a pay increase. The pandemic blocked lawmakers from considering the matter last year.

The lack of consideration — and the rhetoric from opponents — troubled Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the main union for state workers.

She argued state workers have dutifully served in frontline jobs as the pandemic raged and they should be rewarded for their work.

"Yet, a handful of legislators decided that kind of service and sacrifice just isn’t enough for a small raise, no matter the hundreds of millions in tax breaks they just approved for corporations," LaFrenz said in a statement. "They can bet this kind of twisted logic won’t sit right with working Kansans in both parties.”

Judicial branch employees fared better in the budget. About $13 million in raises for judges, clerks and other staffers were included in the budget. An additional $4.3 million was set aside to hire additional court services officers.

The move is an attempt to settle long held concerns about attracting and retaining qualified personnel in the judiciary. As of January, 11% of posts within the system were vacant.

More:With their budget affected by the pandemic, Kansas courts are asking for pay raises

The problem will be even more acute now that thousands of cases have built up during the COVID-19 pandemic, with jury trials only slowly beginning to restart in most Kansas counties.

Ensuring cases can be processed efficiently and the system resumes normal operations made the pay raises even more vital, Claeys said.

"You can't have justice served in the third branch of government if you don't have the people there to do it," he said.

In a statement, Chief Justice Marla Luckert said the move would avoid "an imminent funding crisis."

"It’s not an overstatement to say the funding approved today will transform our state court system, as it addresses longstanding funding concerns in addition to new ones related to the COVID-19 pandemic," Luckert said.

Lawmakers pass higher education funding boost

Legislators also took steps to avoid losing billions in federal COVID-19 aid set aside for both K-12 and higher education.

Guidance from Washington includes requirements that force states to continue funding education at a similar level as they have in the past.

A warning went out from budget director Adam Proffitt that Kansas would need to increase spending for higher education by upward of $100 million to meet those standards — or else risk losing the aid dollars.

More:Federal aid for Kansas colleges and K-12 schools could be at risk without changes

Members agreed to address the matter by putting in an additional $53 million for the state's colleges and universities, with the money divvied up for a variety of expenditures. 

The hope is the proposal will be seen as a show of good faith for the federal government, which can issue a waiver exempting the state from the mandates.

The budget also included $120 million in bonds to replace the aging Docking State Office Building, a longtime object of discussion for state lawmakers. 

Money was also set aside to upgrade the Kansas Department of Labor's unemployment benefits system and implement the creation of the 988 suicide hotline.