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Advocates rally at Kansas Statehouse for social services; state's taxes $4.4M short for month

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Several hundred advocates and disabled Kansas residents rallied Thursday at the Statehouse in support of social services spending, hours before legislators learned that state tax collections this month were slightly less than expected.

The rally came with the Republican-controlled Legislature early in discussions about proposals to raise taxes to close a shortfall in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Legislative researchers say the deficit is $422 million.

The Department of Revenue reported that tax collections in April were $4.4 million less than anticipated. The shortfall was less than 1 percent, and department spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda said it may have been tied to how tax returns were processed after the April 15 filing deadline.

Rally participants worried that lawmakers won't be willing to raise enough new revenues to preserve services for the developmentally disabled — or other programs.

"We need to get your voices heard," said Cole Browne, a 33-year-old developmentally disabled Lawrence resident who spoke at the rally.

Here is a look at major legislative developments Thursday:


TAX COLLECTIONS

The Department of Revenue's monthly report on taxes was its first since officials issued a new, more pessimistic fiscal forecast for state government on April 20. Revenue projections are pegged to that forecast.

The state expected to collect nearly $516 million in taxes for the month but took in $511.5 million.

Since the current fiscal year began in July, the state has collected about $4.5 billion in taxes. That's also $4.4 million less than expected, a shortfall of 0.1 percent.

Koranda said the department receives a crush of tax returns in mid-April and can't predict which ones will be processed first.


BUDGET CONCERNS

The Statehouse rally was sponsored by InterHab, which represents providers of services to the developmentally disabled. Executive Director Tom Laing said the group has concerns such as funding for in-home services and programs in which the developmentally disabled mentor each other.

But Laing said InterHab and other advocates have broader worries about how legislators will resolve budget and tax issues.

The budget problem arose after lawmakers cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy.

PHOTO: Julian Michael Mesker, left, of Prescott, Kan., cheers a speaker alongside Eric Nicol, center, and Stacie Kice, both of Osawatomie, Kan., during a rally for those protesting against potential cuts to disability services, Thursday, April 30, 2015, on the south side of the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Several hundred Kansans with disabilities and advocates for disability services came to the Capitol to speak with lawmakers, who are in the middle of attempting to balance the state budget. (Nick Krug/The Lawrence Journal-World via AP)
Julian Michael Mesker, left, of Prescott, Kan., cheers a speaker alongside Eric Nicol, center, and Stacie Kice, both of Osawatomie, Kan., during a rally for those protesting against potential cuts to disability services, Thursday, April 30, 2015, on the south side of the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Several hundred Kansans with disabilities and advocates for disability services came to the Capitol to speak with lawmakers, who are in the middle of attempting to balance the state budget. (Nick Krug/The Lawrence Journal-World via AP)

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said legislators intend to preserve social services spending.

"We made a commitment," he said.


UNEMPLOYMENT CHANGES

Legislators approved a bill setting a new cap on benefits for unemployed workers and overhauling the collection of taxes from businesses to finance the aid.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday, 29-11. The House approved it earlier this month, 85-36.

The measure goes next to Brownback for his possible signature.

The bill is designed to make the taxes paid by businesses more predictable by setting fixed rates in state law. The state currently sets rates annually based on what it thinks will be needed to finance benefits.

The maximum weekly benefit for workers would be 55 percent of the state's average wage. The cap is now 60 percent, but the bill says the new limit couldn't drop below the current figure of $474.


Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick's office announced that his chief of staff, Wade Hapgood, is taking a new job with a health insurance company and will be replaced by a Kansas Chamber of Commerce official.

Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said Hapgood plans to step down when lawmakers finish their annual session next month. Hapgood has been Merrick's top aide since June 2013.

He will become vice president of state government affairs for UnitedHealth Group Inc., the parent company for one of three firms managing the state's Medicaid program for the needy and disabled.

He will be replaced by Christie Kriegshauser, the chamber's vice president for political affairs. She was Merrick's chief of staff before Hapgood.

The chamber's CEO is former House Speaker Mike O'Neal.


Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org


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