Kansas is less than two weeks away from being unable to pay state workers unless Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature resolve their budget and tax standoff.
Brownback vetoed a bill Tuesday that would increase income tax rates to raise $1.2 billion over two years to fill the state’s budget hole and pay for a court-ordered increase to school funding. If Brownback and lawmakers don’t come to a compromise before June 18, state agencies could face a shutdown when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.
“Without action by the legislature, we do not have the necessary authority to pay state workers, causing difficult decisions to be made regarding the continued operations of state government,” Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, said in an e-mail on Monday evening a few hours before the Legislature’s passage of a tax bill prompted the governor’s promise to veto.
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“Governor Brownback will continue to work with the Legislature to ensure the work of state government continues uninterrupted,” Sullivan said.
Unless the Legislature passes a temporary measure, this would mean furloughs for a large segment of state workers. Melika Willoughby, the governor’s communications director, would not comment on the administration’s furlough plans.
“We are confident the Legislature will act prior to June 18,” she wrote in an e-mail Tuesday afternoon.
Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents state workers, said that a memorandum of understanding between the state and the union requires the state to inform the KOSE 30 days in advance of furloughs. He said the union has not received any notification from the Brownback administration.
“We haven’t heard anything from them,” he said. “They’re just dead silent.”
Choromanski said furloughs would apply to employees considered non-essential, such as case managers who process welfare applications. Public safety employees, such as prison guards and highway patrol officers, are considered essential and “would be required to go to work but wouldn’t necessarily get their pay right away,” he said.
The Kansas Department of Administration, which oversees human resources for state agencies, referred all questions to the governor’s office. While some state agencies deferred questions about furloughs, others said they would be affected if a state budget weren’t in place later this month.
“We would have to furlough the non-essential employees,” said Samantha Poetter, a public information officer for the secretary of state’s office.
Furloughs would also extend to state universities unless the Legislature passes a budget fix or declares all state workers essential, said Breeze Richardson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Board of Regents.
“We’re staying very optimistic that we won’t be in that place,” Richardson said.
She said Board of Regents’ employees would be instructed to watch the board’s website for furlough announcements the weekend of June 18 if it gets to that point.
Werner Golling, Wichita State University’s vice president for finance and administration, said the regents, not individual universities, would make the determination on “whether they separate the essential or non-essential” employees if it comes to furloughs.
‘On the precipice’
There’s still time to pass a budget and prevent furloughs, said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick. “We just can’t stall. We need to keep moving.”
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the state faced a similar situation in June 2015, when lawmakers passed a bill to declare more than 24,000 employees essential to head off furloughs.
“We find ourselves once again on the precipice, and we find legislators coerced by circumstance,” Carmichael said. “If we had been working the budget, if we had been working a real tax plan starting at Day 1 … we wouldn’t find ourselves in this last-minute potential disaster.”
He said frustration about the second-longest legislative session in state history would deepen if furloughs were made.
“If this was a business, the stockholders would fire the board of directors and the CEO,” Carmichael said.
Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, said a failure to override the governor’s veto on taxes would make furloughs a more realistic possibility.
“It’s highly unlikely that we’ll get another budget bill passed in time to avoid those furloughs,” Hawk said. “It gets really dicey.”
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, said he didn’t think an override would be successful.
“They’re going to have to get a more reasonable tax package in order to get the votes they need,” he said. “So it seems like the process is working.”