Politics & Government

Lawmakers work rare weekend, voice frustration over slow pace

The House chamber on Saturday after lawmakers adjourned until Sunday. Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of progress on tax policy.
The House chamber on Saturday after lawmakers adjourned until Sunday. Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of progress on tax policy. The Wichita Eagle

Lawmakers grew frustrated over a lack of action during a rare Saturday workday that marked the 106th day of session – among the longest in state history.

No major policy changes were pushed across the floor for a vote on Saturday. The Senate spent less than an hour in debate on two small bills before leaving for the day.

Before adjourning, lawmakers still must pass a school finance formula intended to satisfy a ruling by the state Supreme Court. And they must decide how to close a budget gap of roughly $900 million over the next two years.

Both chambers have passed school finance formulas, and much of Saturday was consumed by halting negotiations over the two versions. Negotiations were scheduled to continue Sunday afternoon.

But no public progress has been made on fixing the shortfall. The Senate is waiting on the House to pass a tax plan, and that won’t happen until Sunday afternoon at the earliest.

Some lawmakers complained late Friday about the pace of work, while others questioned the path toward an end game.

“Let’s get this done,” Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, said on the floor, adding that he’d like to see work being done all day and have legislators “be serious.”

“And that’s all I ask because I don’t want to keep coming up here,” he said. “I know you don’t either, and I don’t know anybody that enjoys this. But I just feel like we’re not ending the debate.”

Senate President Susan Wagle said people are “absolutely” frustrated.

“I think it’s very hard to be here on a weekend and for people to be away from their family,” Wagle, R-Wichita, said.

“It can have a positive effect in that people are more willing to compromise when they can’t get home to their family,” Wagle said of the weekend work. “And it can have a negative effect with others who dig in, so it can work both ways.”

‘Waiting on the House’

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, cited the House when explaining the slow pace.

“The Senate’s got its work done for the most part. Just waiting on the House. They’re obviously struggling with their budget, their budget is still in committee. It hasn’t even passed out of committee. They’re stuck on tax policy,” Denning said.

The House Appropriations Committee was meeting Saturday on the budget. It was unclear if they would reach a resolution over the weekend.

Though different tax proposals have been floated in the House in recent days, none was brought up for debate Saturday.

Last Tuesday, the Senate passed a tax plan that would have raised about $1.2 billion over two years by raising personal income tax rates, putting in place a third income tax bracket and repealing an exemption for certain kinds of business income. The bill passed the Senate with an almost veto-proof majority but was rejected by the House.

“It’s our turn,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said. “They sent us over a tax package that their body wants.”

Ryckman said it’s understandable for people to be frustrated.

“We want to solve our problems and we want to go home,” Ryckman said.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, the House Tax Committee chairman, said he hoped a conference committee could develop a tax plan on Sunday. With school finance negotiations taking the focus of the Legislature at the moment, more tax ideas are coming forward, he said.

“We just have to continue to strive to get to where we accept a range of possibilities on tax rather than saying, ‘my plan, whatever my plan is,’ ” Johnson said.

Several lawmakers said Saturday they were encouraged by a tax plan developed by a bipartisan group of women in the Legislature.

That plan, which those involved said is estimated to bring in roughly $600 million each fiscal year, raises income tax rates, brings back a third tax bracket and ends Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax exemption for certain business owners.

Legislators who worked on crafting the plan said it also phases in forms of tax relief through a child care tax credit and a mortgage interest itemized deduction along with other programs and deductions in future tax years.

“We are looking for something that is a sweet spot that those of us who have been adamant ‘noes’ can move on and the people who have been ‘yeses’ can stay ‘yeses’ on,” Rep. Patsy Terrell, D-Hutchinson, said.

‘Need to do a better job’

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, called the pace of progress awful and said lawmakers need to do more of their work earlier in the session.

Lawmakers typically work from January until April, then take several weeks off. They return in May for a wrap-up session. Some years, the wrap-up session lasts a few days; other years, it can stretch for weeks.

“We really need to do a better job as stewards of the people and do our work on time,” Faust-Goudeau said.

Operating the Legislature takes at least $43,000 a day. Wagle estimated last week that money to run the Legislature would run out around June 2.

Wagle said Saturday that she thinks there’s funding for a few more days than originally anticipated because the secretaries have gone home.

“I don’t have a definite date on when we run out of money,” Wagle said.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said he is frustrated by how slow the legislative process is moving. He said he’s seen the slow pace in past years, too, at the end of session.

“We can get frustrated, we can get mad,” Doll said. “I just choose to do what I can with what I have.”

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw