Politics & Government

Senate rejects spending cut proposal, OKs bill to fill budget gap

The Kansas Senate Chamber
The Kansas Senate Chamber File photo

A 2 percent across-the-board spending cut put forward by Senate President Susan Wagle failed in the Senate on Thursday, but lawmakers approved a bill to fill the current-year budget gap.

Wagle’s proposal, which would have included spending cuts for K-12 and higher education, failed on a vote of 7-33. Senators also rejected amendments to cut spending by 1 percent and 0.5 percent.

“This is not an amendment that targets schools. This is an amendment that says everyone takes the same cut,” Wagle said.

Senators in a 27-13 vote passed the bill, which eliminates the current $280 million shortfall by taking money from a long-term investment fund and delaying a payment to the state’s pension system.

The debate underscored the desire, shared by many lawmakers, to balance the budget without significant cuts. A version of the bill passed by the House also contained no spending cuts for state agencies.

Wagle, R-Wichita, said the cut would have saved a little more than $100 million in the current year. About $64 million would have come from schools.

She said the cut would have helped reduce the size of a tax increase needed to generate revenue in future years.

“My concern is that if we don’t cut, we will be forced into a very large tax increase,” Wagle told Republican senators in a meeting before the debate.

After lawmakers deal with the current-year shortfall, Kansas still will face a long-term budget shortfall of more than $1.1 billion over the next two years. Wagle said Wednesday the cut she proposed would carry forward but that schools could have their funding restored when the Legislature creates a new finance formula for education.

Lawmakers passed legislation earlier in the session to raise personal income tax rates and eliminate an exemption for pass-through business income. But Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the bill, and the Senate fell three votes short of overriding the veto.

Wagle voted against the bill and the veto override. She suggested the public hasn’t yet grasped that lawmakers are likely to approve raising personal income taxes.

Under her proposed cut, Brownback would have had the ability to spare particularly vulnerable agencies by cutting a different agency by the same amount. The amendment also would have restricted K-12 cuts to non-instruction spending.

Wagle faced resistance to the cuts from her own caucus. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said schools and colleges are beginning to post jobs for the coming year and have been waiting since the beginning of the legislative session to see whether they would have spending cuts.

“There has been absolutely the most extreme rollercoaster of emotion and tension in education since January,” Baumgardner said.

Democrats also spoke against the proposal. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said a cut would come at the worst possible time. Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, also criticized the timing, noting that the fiscal year ends in June.

“I think it’s very difficult, if not hypocritical, for us to think about a cut at this time of year,” Rogers said.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, lent his support to Wagle. He said the amendment wouldn’t have harmed schools, mentioning that only non-instructional spending was to be cut.

“This is not about anything other than spreading the hurt,” Fitzgerald said.

Wagle’s amendment consumed much of the debate. The underlying bill proved less controversial.

Under the bill the Senate passed, Kansas would effectively loan itself about $103 million from a long-term investment fund to help balance the fiscal year 2017 budget. The state would pay back the fund in future years.

The bill would also withhold $150 million from the state’s pension system, KPERS, this year. The amount would be paid back over the next two decades.

The legislation would leave the state with an expected end balance of $50 million.

The House and Senate passed similar but not identical bills. Lawmakers will have to negotiate the differences and approve the same bill before it goes to Brownback.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman