TOPEKA — For lawmakers who aren’t into after-hours charitable shrimp peels, scotch and cigars, there was little reason to be in the state Capitol during the first three days of the Legislature’s wrap-up session.
About as soon as the state’s 165 elected lawmakers arrived in Topeka on Wednesday they realized everything revolves around a prolonged debate over how to wiggle out of the budget problems caused by last year’s massive income tax cuts.
And those conversations occur almost entirely behind closed doors between the big guns – Gov. Sam Brownback, his staff and a handful of Republican legislative leaders.
“It’s disappointing to me personally that we haven’t been able to get anything done this week,” said Wichita Republican Sen. Les Donovan, who is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and the Senate’s chief tax policy negotiator. “It’s a shame we haven’t made progress. But this is a difficult deal.”
Donovan and his House counterpart, Republican Rep. Richard Carlson, haven’t even had a meeting to discuss the tax battle that’s holding everything up. Like almost everyone else, they’re waiting on a sign from top political leaders.
Meanwhile, the frustration flows throughout the Capitol as if it were an airport terminal with all flights flashing “delayed.”
“There’s no reason for everybody to be up here,” said Wichita Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer, who leads tax policy negotiations for Democrats in the House. “It’s all happening behind closed doors. I have no idea what’s going on.”
Several lawmakers interviewed Friday morning said they can’t think of a meaningful reason for them all to be in Topeka, collecting their $211 per day state paychecks and doing virtually nothing of consequence that couldn’t have been dealt with relatively quickly on another day.
“Frankly, I don’t know why we’re here,” said Derby Republican Rep. Jim Howell. “I think this is kind of a waste of our time at the moment.”
Fresh off a round of election victories that put conservative Republicans in charge of the Senate and retained Republicans’ 92-33 dominance in the House, GOP leaders had hoped for an 80-day session, 10 days short of the normal session. The 80th day of the session will be Monday.
Now many lawmakers worry that the legislative session could grind on into overtime despite the single-party dominance.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said lawmakers’ assistants will be sent home next week, leaving lawmakers to fend for themselves.
“Part of the problem with these legislators is they’ve taken time out of their lives to come up here and represent their constituents,” he said. “And, unfortunately, they themselves are really at the mercy of the tax and budget negotiations, which, as you pointed out, it is a staring contest. That’s where we are.”
He said it could get even worse next week.
“I’m just hoping at the beginning of next week something breaks loose,” he said, shortly before sending lawmakers home for the weekend at about 11 a.m. Friday. “But if it doesn’t, they better pack extra underwear because we’re going to be here over the weekend.”
Everything revolves around whether to extend a six-tenths of a cent sales tax that Brownback wants to help stabilize the state budget in the wake of the income tax cuts he signed into law last year. Many House Republicans and Democrats say they don’t want to extend the tax because it would break a promise to constituents that the tax would be allowed to expire this July.
Negotiations have devolved into a virtual staring contest while top political leaders privately try to find a way out of the gridlock.
“The trouble with the process is you never know. It’s a process that happens on the fly,” House Speaker Ray Merrick said before stepping up to the House speaker’s chair. “This is the way it is every year. This is the grinding of the sausage.”