Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers leave Brownback to finish job of filling budget hole

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, awaits a vote on a budget bill Sunday night. The Legislature ended up approving a measure that requires Gov. Sam Brownback to finish the job in balancing the budget.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, awaits a vote on a budget bill Sunday night. The Legislature ended up approving a measure that requires Gov. Sam Brownback to finish the job in balancing the budget. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas has a budget fix – sort of.

Lawmakers have left it up to Gov. Sam Brownback to finish the job.

They passed a budget early Monday that will require the governor to make about $200 million in cuts and fund sweeps in order to balance. Then they adjourned, prompting criticism that the Legislature shirked its constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget.

“Some people said, ‘Well, you’re making him do some stuff,’ ” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. “Well, yeah, we are making him do some stuff. … I think it’s only fair that we get him involved and he has to do some stuff.”

Brownback has agreed to sign the bill.

Merrick said the initial options presented to lawmakers by Brownback, which included a plan to sell off the state’s tobacco settlement on the bond market, were unworkable and that this partial fix was the best option.

“Let’s hope it works,” he said.

Democrats panned the budget, which they say doesn’t attempt to fix the state’s fiscal problems.

The state has faced budget shortfalls since Brownback and lawmakers ushered in income tax cuts in 2012, including elimination of income taxes on some businesses.

“My fear is it’s going to take a decade to repair the damage we’ve done in the past few years,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City.

The House began debate on the budget bill a minute after midnight Monday after lawmakers worked through the weekend. They voted 63-59 an hour later to pass the bill, obtaining the bare minimum number of votes needed.

The Senate voted 22-18 to pass the bill a little after 3 a.m., after several lawmakers who initially voted against it were persuaded to change their votes and send it on to the governor.

Both houses voted to adjourn the session immediately after passing the bill.

The budget plan

SB 249 enables the state to delay a $96 million payment to the state’s pension fund until June 2018, giving it more flexibility to get through the current budget year that ends in June.

Lawmakers are counting on Brownback to ensure the state maintains a balanced budget and can pay its bills on time.

Brownback has already announced plans to sweep $185 million from the state’s highway fund, which will delay 25 highway construction projects over the next three years.

Lawmakers expect the governor to cut $17.6 million from the state’s regents universities and to cut spending by 3 percent for most state agencies. Wichita State University would lose about $2.2 million.

The budget removes a tuition cap the Legislature imposed on the regents last year, which means universities could make up for the loss in state aid through a tuition increase.

If Brownback proceeds with expected cuts, it’s projected the state would have $27.4 million in cash reserves at the end of June and $81 million in reserves by the end of June 2017.

Those numbers count on the Brownback administration to enact unspecified cost-saving measures, based on a recent efficiency study, to save the state $10 million. Democrats have derided this as “magic money.”

The state did get some positive news on the budget front Monday afternoon when the Kansas Department of Revenue announced the state exceeded adjusted tax revenue estimates for April by $2.6 million.

The state lowered its estimates for tax revenue two weeks ago by $177 million for the current fiscal year. The April receipts, which came in 0.06 percent above estimates, are the first month to compare since that revision.

Cede power

Democrats criticized legislative leaders for leaving the spending decisions to Brownback.

“We as a body are just handing that to him without any knowledge of the impact to our districts,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she had “never seen us turn the lights off” without a balanced budget.

Kelly said that when the Kansas Supreme Court hands down rulings about school finance, lawmakers “rant and rave about the judicial branch telling us as appropriators what to do” but that with this budget, lawmakers were agreeing to cede that power to the executive branch.

Mark Peterson, a political scientist at Washburn University, saw the decision to defer to the governor as a way for lawmakers to avoid blame for the cuts in the upcoming election. Every legislative seat is up for election this fall.

“Have you looked at the calendar? It’s called 2016, and there’s an election coming in November … and there’s one guy in the Capitol building who doesn’t have to worry about that, and there’s 165 others who do,” Peterson said.

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, agreed. But he said lawmakers could find themselves back in Topeka before the election.

School funding

Rackaway predicted the Supreme Court will rule that lawmakers failed to ensure equitable funding for school districts, as they were ordered to do in February, when they passed a school finance bill earlier in the session. That could force lawmakers to return for a special session in the summer.

Many lawmakers shared that concern during the floor debates. A hearing in the case is set for May 10.

The budget bill does include a provision that safeguards K-12 education from future cuts, a piece touted by House leaders.

“We continued our commitment to K-12 schools,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman. “When we passed the block grant bill last session, one of the things we stated was this is stable and secure funding in unsecure times. And tonight was a continuation of that commitment.”

Some voiced concern that state agencies may face significant cuts.

Henry warned that the expected cut of around $35 million to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment could harm some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens dependent on the agency’s health services.

Republican leaders, on the other hand, pointed out that the Legislature was able to avoid a tax increase.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said the decision for lawmakers “really boils down to who’s going to be responsible for that (budget) gap.”

“Is it going to be the agency head or is it going to be the taxpayer?” he said. “The taxpayer came out on top.”

Efforts to roll back portions of Brownback 2012 tax cuts failed to gain traction.

‘It’s done’

The budget vote came on the 73rd day of the legislative session. Last year, it took 113 days for lawmakers to pass a budget fix that included a sales tax increase.

“What do I like about the budget? That it’s done,” said Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who observed the House debate.

The bill initially failed to pass in the Senate, with the vote count standing at 17-22. Legislative leaders then worked to pressure lawmakers to change their votes, even joking about twisting arms and turning up the temperature in the room.

The Senate president excused Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate budget chairman, and Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who voted “no,” from the Senate chamber so they could use the bathroom after it was pointed out that Masterson was violating a Senate rule by leaving his seat to lobby Holmes during a call of the Senate.

“There’s always a workaround,” Masterson said as he passed by reporters on his way to the men’s room for the meeting with Holmes.

When the pair returned, Holmes switched his vote to “yes.”

“What tipped the balance is how we treated Larned this year,” said Holmes, whose district includes Larned State Hospital.

The bill provides an additional $17 million for the state’s mental hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie over two years to help make up for losses in federal funding and fill gaps in staffing. It includes language meant to enable the state to explore privatizing the hospitals but says no bids can be accepted until lawmakers reconvene next year.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, also switched his vote. He criticized legislative leaders and the governor for not addressing the state’s fiscal woes more directly, calling the highway fund sweeps and other budget moves a shell game.

“If we were a private entity, I’m not so sure we wouldn’t be foreclosed on,” he said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas lawmakers voted on SB 249 to fix the state’s budget deficit. The bill passed the House 63-59 and the Senate 22-18.

House

Republicans voting yes: Steve Anthimides, Mario Goico, Daniel Hawkins, Dennis Hedke, Mark Kahrs, Les Osterman, Joseph Scapa, Gene Suellentrop, Chuck Weber, John Whitmer, Wichita; Blake Carpenter, Derby; Will Carpenter, El Dorado; Kyle Hoffman, Coldwater; Steve Huebert, Valley Center; Kasha Kelley, Arkansas City; Les Mason, McPherson; Jan Pauls, Hutchinson; Marc Rhoades, Newton; Joe Seiwert, Pretty Prairie

Democrats voting no: All area Democrats voted no.

Republicans voting no: Mark Hutton, Wichita; Steven Becker, Buhler; Pete DeGraaf, Mulvane; Virgil Peck, Tyro; Jack Thimesch, Cunningham; Kristey Williams, Augusta

Absent: Don Schroeder, R-Hesston

Senate

Republicans voting yes: All area Republicans voted yes except for Forrest Knox, Altoona, and Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick, who both voted no.

Democrats voting no: Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Wichita

What they said

Lawmakers worked through the weekend – holding meetings and debates from Friday night into early Monday – as they crafted a budget fix to send to the governor. Here are some memorable lines from the long weekend in Topeka.

“It won’t be my last. My wife puts me on a budget all the time.”

– House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, joking after the House passed a budget at around 1 a.m. on Monday

“If I believed what I read in your papers, I wouldn’t like me either.”

– Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate budget chairman, to reporters

“I’m blinded by the sunshine.”

– Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, a critic of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax policies, referencing Brownback’s re-election slogan of “The sun is shining in Kansas and don’t let anyone tell you any different”

“I’m listening closely to the sounds of breaking arms.”

– Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, as Republican leaders worked to persuade senators to change their votes after the bill failed on an initial vote of 17-21. The bill went on to pass 22-18.

“I’m back from Alaska, so I’ll vote aye.”

– Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, as he entered the Senate chamber around 3 a.m. to cast the final vote in favor of the budget bill. Arpke missed part of last year’s wrap-up session because he was on an Alaskan cruise.

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