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Kansas Disability Services Were Supposed to Get a Boost, but the Pandemic Changed That

Cottonwood and similar organizations struggle to attract workers for the wages they can pay. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)
Cottonwood and similar organizations struggle to attract workers for the wages they can pay. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)


LAWRENCE, Kansas — Cottonwood Incorporated in Lawrence helps about 75 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with jobs, assembling things like cargo straps for the federal government and medical kits. 

When the day is done, Cottonwood takes them back to their homes in the community. Ettie Brightwell stood outside the building in August, telling people goodbye. Brightwell, Cottonwood’s community relations and development director, even stopped one man to tie his shoe before he boarded a van. 

Cottonwood has more than 200 staff members, and there’s a help wanted sign outside of their building. The state was prepared to give organizations that provide in-home care and disability services a $9 million funding increase this year to help boost workers’ pay. 

Cottonwood CEO Sharon Spratt said that could have translated to about $1 or more per hour. Right now, she said, the pay is often between $10 to $12 an hour, making it hard to attract staff.

“We know in today’s world that’s not a very competitive wage,” she said.

But Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly eliminated the $9 million increase when the state’s revenue forecast plummeted by more than $1 billion after the coronavirus closed businesses and led to massive layoffs. As part of her $700 million plan to balance the budget, Kelly wants to delay payments, take out a loan from a state investment pool and trim money for many services — including disability care and juvenile justice. 

Kelly said her goal with the budget cuts is protecting what she calls the state’s economic drivers. That means avoiding cuts to education, transportation and economic development programs. 

“When we come out of this pandemic, I don’t want a crumbled infrastructure,” she said. “I want a solid foundation upon which to grow.”

Kelly also acknowledged that while she has supported increased funding for disability services, this year is not ordinary. 

“It’s just not responsible to increase funding for a program when you’re going to have to be cutting everywhere else,” Kelly said in an interview. 

Disability services in Kansas went almost a decade without a funding increase, though that has changed in the last few years. Matt Fletcher, who is executive director of the advocacy group InterHab, said the $9 million would have been the largest increase yet, at about 5%.

In-home care workers sometimes have to bathe and feed people or change colostomy bags. 

“It's very demanding, taxing work,” Fletcher said. “And the wage that’s paid in most of the state is less than what someone could earn … in fast food or a big-box retail store.”

Corrections money redirected

Another target of the budget-balancing plan is an established fund for juvenile corrections programs. The fund has more than $40 million in it to pay for services that help keep troubled kids out of detention centers. 

“In my opinion, putting kids in custody wasn’t working,” said Peggy Pratt, director of Northwest Kansas Juvenile Services. 

Her organization manages programs in the northwest part of the state, including counseling for kids who are having violent outbursts and mentoring for their parents. The goal is keeping kids on a path that can keep them out of the corrections system later in life.

“I really do think these are invaluable programs,” she said. “Really, we’ve just gotten started.”

Kansas changed how it ran juvenile corrections programs in 2016and money has been building in the fund ever since. Republican state Rep. Russ Jennings said the juvenile programs haven’t ramped up as quickly as hoped, but losing $40 million might hinder future growth and impact the most vulnerable kids.

“If we want to change the trajectory of children who are behaving in ways that are offensive and unlawful, we have to have the resources to do it,” Jennings said.

Kelly disagrees, saying it won’t impact services because the juvenile programs have more funding than they can currently use. 

The proposed juvenile corrections cut will need legislative approval, which might be tough to secure considering some Republicans have criticized Kelly for the cuts and for not cutting enough.

“We need hiring freezes. We need to analyze the budget. We need to dig deep into it,” Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said in June. “This is inadequate for the crisis we’re facing.”

Legislative staff estimate the state could be facing a budget deficit of almost $1.5 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2021. The state’s general fund budget in the current fiscal year totals about $7.6 billion.

But Kansas tax collections have topped forecasts in some recent months, helping chip away at the shortfall. Kelly said it’s not the time to make deep cuts because there might be federal assistance for states in the future.

“I don't want to make any of those kinds of decisions, or put the Legislature in a position of having to make those kinds of decisions, until we know they're absolutely necessary,” Kelly said.

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Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.