Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers to work through weekend on budget fix

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, left, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, listen to lawmakers’ concerns during a GOP caucus meeting on Thursday.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, left, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, listen to lawmakers’ concerns during a GOP caucus meeting on Thursday.

TOPEKA — The Kansas House voted against holding a debate on taxes Thursday, the latest stumble in the Legislature’s slow progress toward crafting a budget fix.

House leaders wanted to bring a tax bill to the floor, a motion that required a two-thirds majority because the bill wasn’t on the day’s calendar. The House voted 72-40 to bring SB 29 to the floor for debate – 12 votes short of the 84 needed – highlighting the divide within the Republican Party.

Lawmakers have struggled for weeks to craft a tax package to fill a $400 million budget hole, and legislative leaders announced plans early Thursday to work through the weekend on a solution.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, told reporters he was encouraged about the prospect that a budget fix would arise soon.

SB 29 contains a provision that would put business owners back on the tax rolls. House leaders had planned to offer an amendment to strip that and other provisions from the bill.

The bill would have only then included a provision to grant amnesty from penalties to people who owe back taxes – which is estimated to bring in $30 million – and several popular provisions unrelated to tax policy.

The intention was to get the bill into conference so that Senate and House negotiators could work on crafting a final fix to the state’s $400 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.

“Plain fact is we’re at the point where we need to narrow down and show we can govern,” Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, the House Taxation chair, told his colleagues at a GOP caucus meeting.

But many conservatives objected to what they saw as an attempt to circumvent the democratic process by handing tax negotiations over to a joint committee of four Republicans and two Democrats.

“You effectively take away the lawmaking power of every single person in this body and you transfer it into the hands of really what becomes four (people),” said Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City.

House leaders had offered the idea as a way to speed up the process and avoid a slew of contentious votes on tax policy. But conservatives saw it as an attempt to avoid debate.

“We have spent an entire session not talking about tax policy until the last minute. You ever heard that little saying that lack of preparation on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine?” Kelley said. “I know we can resolve this. I know we can. But all of our members of our body and our caucus have to be heard.”

Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, who also voted against bringing the bill forward, noted that the House and Senate had already entered budget negotiations without the House ever voting on a budget.

“I can swallow that. But I can’t swallow this, too,” he said.

House leaders appeared caught off-guard by the vote and spent several minutes huddling before gaveling out for the day.

“It’s democracy. It’s tough sometimes,” said House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, after the vote.

Multiple tax bills have been put on the calendar for Friday. “Tomorrow we will be here however long it takes to start figuring tax policy to fund our budget,” Vickrey said.

Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate, are divided on whether to include income tax as part of a budget fix or to rely solely on sales and other consumption taxes.

SB 29 will be on the debate calendar for Friday, and so will SB 270, a bill that relies primarily on consumption taxes to fill the budget hole.

SB 270 as currently written would raise the sales tax to 6.5 percent. Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, suggested that he would support raising it to 6.65 percent.

$43,000 a day

Friday will be the 99th day of the session – nine more than is budgeted for. Each extra day costs $43,000.

Rebecca Procter, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said it is “incredibly irresponsible that our Legislature is spending $43,000 a day to stay in session when we already have a huge budget deficit.”

“That is more than the annual salary of most state employees that we represent,” she said. “They knew that budget and tax discussions were going to be contentious and it’s ridiculous that they waited so long to have these discussions.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she was confident that lawmakers would craft a solution if they worked through the weekend.

“We know we need to govern, we need to find a solution and we need to shut down this session,” Wagle said. “We’re hoping we can grind it down and find a solution that 63 (in the House) and 21 (in the Senate) and the governor agree to.”

However, Rep. Nancy Lusk, D-Overland Park, said she was pessimistic about lawmakers’ chances of cobbling a fix together this weekend after a series of stumbles this month.

“It’s a quagmire. There doesn’t seem to be any direction,” she said. “I don’t think they have a vision for it.”

Gov. Sam Brownback has taken a hands-off approach, for the most part, to budget and tax debate.

“This is very difficult for a Republican Legislature to deal with,” Brownback said about the task of finding consensus on taxes. “For most folks they would say let’s try to reduce the budget.”

Some Republicans say the Legislature has not done enough to cut spending. Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, has started the “Red Pen Brigade,” a group of about 15 lawmakers who have taken to wearing red pens in their front pockets to signify their desire to look for budget cuts.

Brownback was noncommittal when asked whether additional budget cuts might be needed to balance the budget and whether he would support that.

“I’m sure there are possibilities,” Brownback said.

Furloughs

If lawmakers do not pass a budget by the first week of June, state employees could face furloughs. Brownback would have authority over that decision, but he downplayed this concern when talking to reporters Thursday. He refused to specify a date when the decision would have to be made.

“I’m not trying to put any artificial deadline on people. … Because if people feel like there’s some artificial deadline that’s here, then they react negatively to that – ‘You’re just trying to force us to do something,’” Brownback said.

“This is a tactic a lot of times that’s used in Washington, saying, ‘OK, it’s got to be done by this date or these things shut things down’ and then right at the last minute they figure out, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we’ve found five days here,’” Brownback said.

There’s disagreement about how far in advance state employees would need to notified before being furloughed.

John Milburn, spokesman for the Department of Administration, said administrative furloughs require 30 days’ notice, but emergency furloughs require no notice because of a policy change made last year. He said furloughs because of the budget would constitute an emergency.

However, Procter said employees whose contracts are covered by the union require 30 days’ notice. She said the Brownback administration’s refusal to give state employees clear information about furloughs was a sign of disrespect.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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