Politics & Government

Common ground on budget is elusive

TOPEKA — Legislators played the blame game on Friday as they hit a standstill on how your tax dollars will be spent next year.

Like combative siblings, the House pinned the lack of progress on the Senate, and the Senate cried, "It's the House's fault."

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, head of her chamber's negotiating team, said the last two offers from the House were "regressive" and more about a number than public policy and ensuring the core services Kansans expect and need.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, stood by his chamber's desire to have an ending balance of at least $50 million, admitting that "a healthy ending balance is a little bit of a higher priority than getting some of the policy."

O'Neal mentioned a disciplinary tactic that he used to use with his children: If they didn't finish their dinner, they got to eat it at breakfast the next day. If senators don't like what the House is serving, they'll be eating it next year, he said.

On the 84th day of the session Friday, the chambers hadn't agreed on several key issues in the budget, ranging from dollars for education and the courts to the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program and longevity bonuses at Christmas for Statehouse workers.

The House wants to cut state base aid per student by $250 while the Senate wants to cut education by $226 per student. The Senate wants to put $5 million in the budget to subsidize airfares; the House's budget doesn't include those dollars.

Negotiators and leaders from both chambers expressed frustration at the pace of talks. O'Neal said he was disappointed more people weren't around the Statehouse on Friday to do work as the session heads into next week.

"We need to see some movement, and we need to see some movement pretty fast to get adjourned on time," O'Neal said Friday. "Even when you get to agreement, it takes a good deal of time to get the paperwork done to get shut down."

Legislators are going home for the weekend. Some left Thursday. Budget negotiators plan to resume work Monday morning.

Appearing tired from a grueling week of negotiations, McGinn said she nonetheless was encouraged that Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said his committee would take a new look at its offer.

McGinn chairs the Senate's ways and means committee; Rhoades chairs the House's appropriations committee. Together, they are leading negotiations. They have sat through 13 rounds of negotiations.

Their conference committee meetings take place in the old Supreme Court room. Dozens of people observe the sessions and follow along with a printout of where each chamber stands. The sound of people turning pages permeates the room.

Rhoades said he thought his chamber's budget negotiators had made a "good-faith effort" in its proposals to the Senate.

But McGinn said the House's offers were too focused on an ending number and not enough on public policy.

The Republican leadership of the House issued a statement Thursday that both sides had agreed to an ending balance of $50 million. Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said Friday that he didn't know where that statement came from.

"It was a surprise to me," he said in a meeting with reporters.

"We would all like to see a healthy ending balance in this budget," Morris said in a news release issued after the meeting. "But we'd also like to make sure our local schools stay open, our senior citizens are cared for and our economy remains on track for recovery. We have the ability to do both."

McGinn said it is important for the Legislature to ensure the state's core services are funded so they are not "dumped on the backs of local government. That can certainly change the makeup of your community."

Senate Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood, said that when the House makes an offer that promises progress, the Senate will accept it.

"We're sitting at the table with a plan that is balanced, that minimizes the cuts to our communities and that leaves money in the bank," Vratil said in a news release after the meeting. "The Senate is ready to get that plan passed and wrap up the session."

Senate Democrats on Friday called on Gov. Sam Brownback to take a bigger role in the budget deliberations.

"I think it is imperative that the governor show some leadership and bring members of his political party together and try to end this session," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle