Kelly’s authority to cut juvenile programs challenged

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A panel of lawmakers is contesting the governor’s legal authority to make cuts in evidence-based juvenile programs in the Department of Corrections.

The Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice on Monday morningĀ  recommended asking the attorney general to take any legal action necessary to stop the governor from cutting $44 million for the juvenile programs.

The panel also recommended that a letter be sent to Gov. Laura Kelly urging her to adhere to the law and not cut the money as a way of balancing the budget for fiscal year 2021 to offset declining revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both recommendations will be forwarded to the legislative leaders on the Legislative Coordinating Council, which must act on the committee’s recommendations.

Republican lawmakers don’t believe the governor has the power to take the funding through the so-called allotment process.

The funding is derived from savings reached as a result of juvenile justice reforms that limited out-of-home placement of young offenders.

The savings, in turn, were to go toward community-based services that allow youth to be supervised safely while remaining at home.

State law says the “allotment system shall not apply to…payments made from the juvenile justice improvement fund…for the development and implementation of evidence-based community programs and practices for juvenile offenders and their families.”

Kelly said during her daily briefing Monday that the Legislature would be asked to approve the cut to juvenile justice programs when it returns in January. However, the draft plan distributed to lawmakers last week did not make that distinction.

“This is an incredibly important fund,” said Republican state Rep. Stephen Owens. “Those funds have been set aside for specific goals, specific usages and those funds being diverted are going to cause significant issues within our system.”

Budget Director Larry Campbell proposed the cut in a draft plan shown to lawmakers last week. He said the money had accumulated in the fund without being drawn down.

He said the fund would still have about $7 million left after the cut. Legislative researchers told the committee there is now a balance of about $41 million in the fund.

The Kelly administration is facing a deep budget deficit – estimated at more than $600 million – for fiscal year 2021 because of the economic slowdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican state Rep. Russ Jennings, chair of the committee, said lawmakers need to act immediately to stop the governor from cutting the funds. Waiting until the start of the next session in January would be too late to preserve the money.

“There needs to be a response or those funds will forever be gone and the value of juvenile justice reform will significantly be diluted if not entirely lost,” he said.

“We need to assure that these funds remain intact,” Jennings said. “I know of no other way prior to January for the Legislature to intervene.”

Democrats on the panel tried to restrict the committee’s recommendation to only a letter to the governor and keep the attorney general out of the fray.

“I don’t believe that’s necessary,” said Rep. Sydney Carlin.

Carlin said she would have preferred a letter to the governor asking her to reconsider plans to cut the money from the juvenile justice programs.

Carlin said it could have been an oversight on the part of the Kelly administration given all of the demands that it’s now facing.

She said the governor should be given a chance to answer questions about the cuts before bringing in the attorney general.

“It’s heavy handed and this committee should not operate in this way,” Carlin said.

Democratic state Sen. Pat Pettey echoed a similar view.

“I am very concerned that we feel the necessity to bring the attorney general into budgetary decisions that are being recommended at a critical time for our state,” Pettey said. “I find it real concerning and I find it somewhat political.”

Democratic state Rep. Boog Highberger said it was premature to get the attorney general involved, although he, too, questioned whether the governor has the power to make the cuts in the program.

Highberger said taking all of the money would decimate the programs it funds. He sent a letter to the governor Saturday expressing concerns about cutting that money.

He asked the governor to consider at least leaving $22 million in the program so the evidence-base programs could continue.

“I believe there are places where some of this money could be obtained with less serious and immediate short-term consequences, and you will certainly have my support if you choose to do so,” Highberger wrote in his letter.

He acknowledged that the money for the juvenile-based programs is tightly locked down.

“We placed some pretty serious restrictions on allotments for those funds,” Highberger said in an interview. “I don’t think the governor has the authority to sweep it.”

He said the Legislature should try to resolve the issue with the governor.

“We should work it out with the governor and if somehow she manages to actually sweep the funds without legislative approval, then it might be appropriate to involve the attorney general,” he said.