TOPEKA – Kansas House members passed a multibillion-dollar spending bill in minutes without debate Wednesday.
Finding the money to pay for it will be more of a challenge. The House budget action followed earlier moves in both chambers to empower a conference committee to try to reach accord on raising taxes to fund the budget and avert a possible partial shutdown of government on Monday.
The budget bill, SB 112, calls for spending about $400 million more than the state is expected to take in for the 2016 budget year.
Moving a budget before a tax bill is an unorthodox strategy, designed to put pressure on members to come to agreement on the gridlocked question of whether or how to raise taxes.
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The budget outlines $6.37 billion in spending in state general funds and $15.4 billion when all funds, including designated fees and federal grants, are taken into account.
After the 64-48 vote, House Democratic leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City, Kan., called foul, saying that Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, who chaired the meeting, cut off debate before he or other Democrats got a chance to speak.
“You saw me stand up and request an opportunity to speak,” said Burroughs. “The person in the chair makes that decision, and you’ve seen how quick that decision occurred.”
Mast, the House speaker pro tem, said she didn’t see Burroughs trying to catch her attention, and none of the other Democrats raised hands or pressed the button for the light signifying they wanted to speak on the bill.
“It was just a missed opportunity (for the Democrats); I don’t know how to explain it,” she said.
The debate was expected to run for hours. Some members even brought extra snacks.
But Appropriations Committee Chairman Ronald Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, was given permission to close the debate after a short opening statement.
Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said Democrats had expected Ryckman to talk longer, and they were still getting ready to speak.
“I’ve never seen a budget passed that way ever, and I’ve been here since 1986,” he said.
Democrats had spent a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday morning planning their budget debate strategy and dividing talking points between their members.
Burroughs said the Democrats would have objected to transfers from state highway funds, cuts to social-services caseload funding and a lack of revenue for dealing with tornadoes and other natural disasters.
Further, “We are passing a bill that is unconstitutional,” Burroughs said. “It does not balance.”
Tax plan work
Still to come are days of debate over whether to raise taxes to pay for the spending plan.
The Senate passed a tax bill Wednesday, inching toward a solution.
The bill won’t go very far toward filling the budget gap. It contains about $30 million or so of mostly noncontroversial items.
But it does create a placeholder for House and Senate negotiators to try to hammer out a broader solution.
Moments after the Senate passed the bill, the House put it into a conference committee of four Republicans and two Democrats representing both chambers.
The conference committee members now have both a House and a Senate bill to consider, giving them the flexibility to choose which chamber to try to move a tax plan through first.
Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, cast the decisive vote to put the bill over the needed 21 votes.
He noted that it’s an incomplete bill that needs to be fleshed out in conference. He said he wants to see policy issues addressed so the final product “more evenly spreads the tax burden.”
Property tax hikes
One policy issue the existing bill does address: It puts a cap on property tax increases for local government.
That provision would require cities and counties to hold an election to raise property taxes more than the consumer price index.
That garnered support for passing the bill from anti-tax conservatives, several of whom said it was a key factor in their voting for the overall bill.
But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, a more moderate former county commissioner, said the property tax lid prompted her to vote “no” because of the potential for unintended consequences.
The city of Wichita was quick to denounce the proposal, saying it’s based on faulty analysis of property tax data.
“The bulk of that revenue increase is the result of new construction, not because of mill levies raised by local governments, or because of unusual appraisal increases on existing property,” the city’s statement said. “In 2013, assessed valuation in Sedgwick County actually declined, and the only increase in property tax revenue was the result of new construction.”
Temporary funding bill
The tax vote came moments after House Democrats held a news conference to announce their introduction of a bill to hold off a government shutdown Monday and give the Legislature more time to work.
The bill would immediately earmark about $200 million in state funding to continue paying state employees for two months.
It was unclear whether or how the bill would provide for supplies the employees would need to do their jobs effectively.
Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said that would be worked out in committee if the Republicans agree to talks.
Employees essential to public health and safety would remain on the job after Monday, even if the deadline does pass without a budget.
But Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said one big effect is that a shutdown would idle 40,000 state university employees in the middle of their summer instruction programs.
Reach Dion Lefler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How they voted
Senate tax vote
Here’s how area senators voted in a 25-13 vote to send Senate substitute for HB 2109 to negotiators to develop a tax plan.
Republicans voting yes: Les Donovan, Michael O’Donnell, Mike Petersen and Susan Wagle, Wichita; Terry Bruce, Hutchinson; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Ty Masterson, Andover; Richard Wilborn, McPherson
Republicans voting no: Steve Abrams, Arkansas City; Forrest Knox, Altoona; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick
Democrats voting no: Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Wichita
House budget vote
Here’s how area House members voted on House substitute for SB 112, the budget bill. The bill passed 64-48.
Republicans voting yes: Steve Anthimides, Steve Brunk, Mario Goico, Daniel Hawkins, Dennis Hedke, Mark Hutton, Les Osterman, Gene Suellentrop, John Whitmer, Wichita; Blake Carpenter, Derby; Will Carpenter, El Dorado; Kyle Hoffman, Coldwater; Les Mason, McPherson; Jan Pauls, Hutchinson; Marc Rhoades, Newton; Don Schroeder, Hesston; Joe Seiwert, Pretty Prairie; Jack Thimesch, Cunningham; Kristey Williams, Augusta
Republicans voting no: Joseph Scapa, Wichita; Steven Becker, Buhler; Pete DeGraaf, Mulvane; Kasha Kelley, Arkansas City; Virgil Peck, Tyro
Democrats voting no: John Carmichael, Gail Finney, Tom Sawyer, Ponka-We Victors, Jim Ward, Brandon Whipple, Wichita; Ed Trimmer, Winfield
Absent: Democrats Carolyn Bridges and Roderick Houston, Wichita; Republicans Mark Kahrs, Wichita, and Steve Huebert, Valley Center