Politics & Government

Budget emerges after weeks of talks, lost sleep

TOPEKA — Carolyn McGinn walked onto the Senate floor Thursday morning clutching a brown paper cup of caffeine, her shoulders a bit hunched over.

Someone asked about her level of shut-eye Wednesday night.

"More than I got the night before," she answered, smiling.

McGinn needed the coffee fix after weeks of non-stop negotiations with the House on how the state should spend tax dollars next year. Negotiators finally reached agreement late Wednesday on a $14 billion budget that eliminates a $500 million shortfall and leaves the state with $50 million in reserves.

As chair of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee, McGinn, R-Sedgwick, led negotiations for the Senate.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, was the House's chief negotiator.

They started negotiations with dozens of differences between House and Senate versions of the budget.

Together, they weathered about 20 rounds of negotiations —"we just finally quit counting" — the most grueling of which happened this week.

Several times a day, McGinn and Rhoades sat across from each other at the center of long tables, surrounded by their colleagues in the Old Supreme Court Room of the Statehouse, a grand room with calming pink walls and exacting gold swirls on the ceiling.

McGinn would announce her chamber's offers, or Rhoades would announce his, and then they'd look at each other, huddle with their conferees and decide how much time they needed to assess what the other brought to the table. People in the room kept track of what deals were in the works by flipping through handouts that changed colors like a chameleon from meeting to meeting.

"Are we on the green sheets?" observers asked. "Salmon?" "Buff?"

Sometimes, the meetings, heavily attended by journalists, lobbyists and schoolchildren walking through the room during tours, lasted less than five minutes before McGinn and Rhoades would take off again to meet with their conferees or each other.

Their meetings nearly always, if not always, started late as last-minute wrangling took place in offices or hallways. A 6 p.m. meeting quickly became "7-ish," then 8 or 9 and so on. People in the audience took the delays as a good sign that they were getting closer to an agreement.

This session was McGinn's and Rhoades' first times as lead budget negotiators. McGinn served as vice chair of Ways and Means the past two years. Rhoades had one year of experience on the Appropriations Committee before becoming its chair this session.

"It's certainly a very intense process," said McGinn, a former Sedgwick County commissioner. "You continue to work on your positions that your chamber wants, but at the same time it comes down to packaging various positions and making compromise."

When she and Rhoades weren't in room 346S on the third floor of the Statehouse, they were meeting with other members of the budget conference committee "to talk about positions we could stand firm on," she said.

Negotiations in public were always civil and professional, but both sides sometimes blamed the other when progress stalled. Words at times were measured.

McGinn said Thursday that she had had little sleep the past 48 hours. She noted that support staff such as researchers and revisors, as well as legislators' assistants, also had gone without rest.

Alan Conroy, director of the legislative research department, didn't sleep at all Tuesday night and left the Statehouse about 2 a.m. Thursday only to return hours later.

Although Conroy didn't sleep Tuesday night, he did run home to take a shower and change his clothes.

"It's always a bad sign when you come home from work and the newspaper's in the driveway," he joked.

Statute revisors, tasked with drafting the details of laws that legislators pass, worked straight through the night after the budget agreement was reached.

Jill Wolters, senior assistant revisor, said three lawyers worked all night Wednesday, then went home between 6 and 7 a.m. Thursday to freshen up. A secretary came in at 2 a.m. Thursday, input the budget committee's report and stayed till 6 a.m. Four lawyers came in then to proof the report.

Rhoades spent his 50th birthday Tuesday in budget talks "from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day," he said. "But that's OK. I was here to get that done. I didn't really come in with expectations, and I think that helped. I knew it was going to be a work in progress until it was done. I knew we would get it done. That's our only job — to get a budget."

His wife, Denise, came to the Statehouse on Thursday, the 90th day of the session, to be with him. She sat in on floor meetings in the afternoon. They spent last weekend together, she said, celebrating Mother's Day and his birthday.

"And we text," she said, flexing her thumbs as if sending a message.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle