By Dion Lefler

The Kansas Legislature rapidly pushed through a bill Saturday to avert a midnight government shutdown, with Gov. Sam Brownback signing it despite concerns about its legality.

The bill heads off furloughs for more than 24,000 state employees by defining them all as essential. Emergency furloughs triggered by the end of a budget year apply only to workers deemed nonessential to state operations.

Employees were notified Friday that they would be furloughed if the Legislature did not approve a budget and a tax plan to pay for it before Sunday.

Both houses have been unable to fill a $400 million budget shortfall, with factions deeply divided over sales and business tax increases. The Senate rejected another tax plan Saturday afternoon.

Both chambers had planned to take up tax bills late Saturday but had not done so by 11 p.m.

The furlough fix gives them an additional two weeks to continue the debate.

The House passed the furlough fix bill, SB 11, on Saturday morning, followed by the Senate on Saturday afternoon -- both unanimously. Brownback signed it Saturday evening.

"Every state employee is essential to our success and provides needed services to the citizens of our state," he said in a statement. "All state employees should report to work as normal beginning Sunday, June 7, even though the Legislature has not yet passed a bill authorizing expenditures."

He was critical of the lawmakers for the length of the legislative session, which at 107 days on Saturday tied a record for longest session.

"The solution is for the Legislature to continue its work, and bring to my desk a balanced budget with sufficient revenues to pay state obligations and do so now," Brownback said. "If the Legislature does not pass a budget and tax policy, it leaves the state with no authority to disburse funds, including salaries.

"SB 11 means that employees will work without the guarantee of being paid for that work. That is potentially in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Senators initially were reluctant to embrace the House furlough plan, saying they didn't think it would fix the situation. But they changed course, saying they had gotten a legal opinion that the House plan would work.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill isn't the best solution because it doesn't allocate money for employee pay but gives employees a claim against the state when a budget finally passes.

He called it the "prettiest baby in the ugly baby contest."

It was a rare point of agreement between Masterson and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, who has pressed the Republicans to pass a budget bill.

"I am very appreciative we are taking this step and we are taking it this early in the day as we are, not running up against the 12 midnight issue," Hensley said.

The lawmakers had to take action because the pay period starting Sunday ends after July 1 in the next fiscal year and after the state's current spending authority expires.

House Speaker pro-tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, said the Republican caucus questioned budget director Shawn Sullivan on Friday, and he assured them that there was money to pay any employees deemed essential and that this option would keep the employees on the job and being paid.

(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)