Budget dispute could close state parks, furlough courts employees, senators warn

An agreement on the state’s $14.1 billion state budget has unraveled and legislators are at odds on whether the delay in approving a budget will cause any problems.

The House unexpectedly delayed a vote on the budget late this afternoon.

Sen. John Vratil warned that the dispute could force the closure of state parks and a furlough of all court employees on Fridays in the near future.

“It is going to have dramatic consequences,” said Vratil, R-Leawood, one of the budget negotiators.

However, House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said he is not aware of any negative consequences of putting off the vote on the budget until legislators return April 25 from their spring break.

The House late this afternoon rejected budget proposals that senators say were agreed upon formally but not signed.

The Senate had already signed off on the budget and the House was about to pass it when representatives spotted a problem with the agreement. The issue was how to cover $25 million in unexpected costs faced by the state’s 286 school districts. The House had proposed diverting money from highway projects, an idea not in Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget recommendations or approved by the Senate.

The budget agreement called for lawmakers to address that issue when they return from their break April 25. But House negotiators wanted senators to reconsider, and senators didn’t.

O’Neal then announced that his chamber would not vote before lawmakers adjourned for their break this evening.

Since the bill included some supplemental funding, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism could soon run out of money, according to Vratil.

And courts could be affected.

In a Feb. 29 letter to Senate President Steve Morris, Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss said that an unexpected decrease in court case filings in 2012 caused revenue losses for the Judicial Branch. He warned lawmakers that lawmakers would have to approve $1.4 million by March 31.

"If the legislative process is not completed by March 31, then the Supreme Court will be obligated to immediately start the process of closing courts and sending employees home without pay, i.e, furloughs," he wrote. "And once we start sending employees home without pay, even full funding later will not completely fix our problem."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, blamed House Republicans for abandoning the budget after agreements had been made.

He said O’Neal used his "political muscle" to shut the legislative session down.

"As a result of his reckless and selfish behavior, K-12 schools risk losing funding, judiciary employees risk being furloughed, and the Children’s Initiative Fund ... risks uncertainty," he said in a news release.

Contributing: The Associated Press