Kansas legislature delays hard choices on state budget

TOPEKA — Lawmakers left town this week without doing the one thing they must in the 90-day session: Pass a balanced budget.

They put off wrenching decisions about increasing taxes or cutting spending until the final 15 days.

The delay is unprecedented. But many say it makes sense to wait until lawmakers come back for the brief wrap-up session April 28.

"If we do it this way at least we will avoid an exercise in futility," said Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers expect a projected $470 million budget shortfall to grow when economists release new revenue estimates on April 16.

Meanwhile, the state's leaders repeated opposing budget views Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson and key Senate Republican leaders held separate news conferences to repeat that tax increases will have to be part of the solution.

"You have to make adjustments," said Senate President Stephen Morris, R-Hugoton. "I think the majority of the legislators realize that (tax increases) has to be done."

But Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, said a House Republican budget proposal that relies on cuts remains a viable option.

"It's all still very relevant," said Yoder, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "We've shown we can balance the budget without devastating cuts to services."

Parkinson said there's reason to believe the state's economy is beginning to improve.

The Department of Revenue announced that tax collection exceeded estimates by $12 million in March, though it was still down $92.8 million for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Unemployment dipped to 6.8 percent in February from 7.2 percent in January. About 1.4 million Kansas residents were employed in February, while nearly 103,000 were actively seeking work. The unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in February 2009.

"We continue to make progress with the Kansas economy but we still face challenges," Parkinson said.

Morris said lawmakers had cut as far as they could with the current budget. He said he did not know what a final tax bundle might look like, but that no options were off the table.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee, which handles that chamber's budget proposal, will return to work April 19.

The House budget proposal, on the other hand, would not require lawmakers to raise taxes. It would effectively decrease money for public education by not replacing $172 million in federal stimulus dollars. School districts instead would have more opportunity to ask their local communities to raise property taxes.

Parkinson called the measure "irresponsible."

Senate Vice President Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said that property tax is the least popular tax in Kansas.

"We need to live up to our responsibility and not push our tax burden onto local taxpayers," he said.

Yoder said he plans to start the wrap-up session using the House Appropriations budget proposal as a base.

He said he hasn't changed his mind about opposing tax hikes.

"We need to be more focused on the long-term fiscal stability of the state," he said. "We need to grit our teeth, tighten our belt and hold on so that we come out of this recession much stronger than the states that opted for tax hikes."

Unusual year

The new budget year, fiscal 2011, starts July 1.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said it may appear to outsiders that lawmakers are dragging their feet on dealing with the budget, but that isn't the case.

"Everybody needs to realize we are not in normal times right now. This downturn has been deeper and longer than anything we've had by far," Donovan said.

Voters are likely to accept that response, said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University.

Timing is everything. Although the April estimates aren't normally so critical, this year they will frame the discussion, Beatty said. "The issues are very fluid."