TOPEKA — Democratic and moderate Republican legislators in Kansas are using a highly unusual process in hopes of passing a $13.6 billion state budget and sales tax increase.
Their tactics so far are allowing them to go around the House's conservative GOP leaders, who oppose raising taxes. Democrats and GOP moderates want to protect aid to public schools, while conservatives are willing to cut education funding to avoid a budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Legislators return to work today after failing to reach agreement late Saturday on whether to increase taxes.
Budgets aren't normally drafted without negotiations between teams of senators and House members, with scores of colleagues, other state officials and lobbyists watching. This year, the talks are less formal and usually out of public view, and they don't involve the traditional players.
House Republican leaders, who'd normally be key players in the budget talks, aren't. Proposals are being drafted around them and passed despite them — with no need to compromise with GOP conservatives.
"There have been lines drawn in the sand from the beginning of the session that have made compromise difficult to achieve," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, who has been cut out of the final budget talks. "Minds have been made up."
When the Republican-controlled Legislature began its annual session in January, its members and Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson knew the state couldn't sustain programs at existing levels with the revenue anticipated during the next fiscal year.
Parkinson said he wouldn't accept significant cuts after multiple rounds of budget reductions last year. Democratic and moderate Republican lawmakers began working to push tax increases through the Legislature.
Conservative Republicans argued that raising taxes would hurt families and slow any economic recovery in Kansas.
They've shown no signs they're willing to consider even a small increase in state taxes. They argue the next budget can be balanced with a modest cut in education funding, one that can be offset by allowing school districts to tap reserve funds and raise their property taxes.
Democrats and moderate Republicans contend that House GOP leaders — and their conservative allies in the Senate — marginalized themselves.
"That's a decision House leadership made, knowing full well there was a bipartisan coalition working with a mirror image on the Senate side," said Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Under the typical budget process, both chambers approve their spending plans at the same time, and a conference committee negotiates over a stray bill, inserting its compromise there.
After the compromise is drafted, each chamber votes on it.
Had that process been followed this year, Yoder would have been the House's lead budget negotiator.
He'd have been joined by House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, who's also vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, an ardent opponent of tax increases. The third House member would have been Rep. Bill Feuerborn, of Garnett, the Appropriations Committee's ranking Democrat.
Kelly would have been the negotiator for Senate Democrats.
She'd have been joined by Republicans Jay Emler, of Lindsborg, the Ways and Means Committee's chairman, and either Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick, or John Vratil, of Leawood, both committee vice chairmen. All three GOP senators supported the sales tax increase.
The alternate route allows a chamber, after the other chamber has amended a bill, to simply concur in those changes and send the measure to the governor, rather than negotiating a compromise.
The Senate amended a proposal to increase the state's 5.3 percent sales tax to 6.3 percent into a House bill and returned it to the House.
Democrats and moderate Republicans in the House amended their proposed budget into a Senate bill and returned it to the Senate.
To pass the bipartisan budget, the Senate would concur in the House amendments to the Senate's bill. To pass the tax increase, the House would concur in the Senate amendments to the House's measure.
"That's the only process available to us," said Rep. Charles Roth, a Salina Republican and a leader of the House's bipartisan coalition.
Roth argued that the talks between coalition members and senators are like conference committee negotiations.
Critics of that process say too much of the work occurs in private meetings and mistakes are less likely to get caught.
Roth replied: "We don't have any leadership perks to make agendas and committee work possible."