Session tackles budget shortfall

TOPEKA — To tax or not to tax? Lawmakers return to the capital today to wrestle with how to close an expected shortfall of almost half a billion dollars for the 2011 budget, which starts July 1. If committee meetings last week are any indication, it's going to be contentious.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee crafted a budget that restored about $40 million in spending. But discussion fell apart when lawmakers turned their attention to ways to close an expected $412 million gap with a combination of sales taxes and levies on cigarettes, alcohol and sugary drinks. Democrats also tossed out a proposal to modify the state's income tax structure.

The committee adjourned until today without voting on, or really debating, a tax package.

The House Appropriations Committee, in the meantime, passed a 2011 budget proposal that would leave $11 million in state coffers. The plan would not require lawmakers to vote to raise taxes. It would cut money from public schools, and Gov. Mark Parkinson said in a TV interview earlier this week that he would veto a budget package that relies on further cuts.

Parkinson, a Democrat, and the Republican Legislature, have cut about $1 billion from state spending since the 2009 budget.

The House proposal would replace half of the $172 million in one-time federal stimulus dollars used to prop up state aid to public schools this year. That means school districts would need to offset an $86 million loss, possibly by seeking to raise local property taxes.

The Senate proposal attempts to hold schools harmless by replacing the federal stimulus dollars with state dollars.

Even if Wichita schools receive the same amount of money as they did in 2010, the district will fall $5 million behind in its budget, said Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district.

"The reality is that flat isn't flat," she said. "It isn't flat at home, it isn't flat in your business and it isn't flat in the school district. Just as with any budget, our budget has expenses that will go up next year."

School spending is the largest difference between the two budget proposals and their reliance on new tax dollars.

Tax dollars — or what could be taxed — have become a rallying point.

Groups such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce have taken strong stances against any tax increase.

Cathy Nugent, spokeswoman with Kansans Against Food and Beverage Taxes, said she also is concerned about levies that target specific industries — such as the proposed tax on sugary drinks.

"Targeted taxes are bad period. When you pull out one industry over another and decide to target and tax them, where does it stop?" she said.

Instead of turning to taxpayers for more money, Nugent said she would rather see the state cut spending further or look at more creative ways to raise revenue, such as selling off unused state assets.

On Tuesday, groups supporting Kansans for Quality Communities held a news conference pushing for tax increases to help stave off further cuts to state programs.

People in Kansas are willing to pay a few more pennies on a loaf of bread to provide services to the disabled, schools and the elderly, said Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, which is part of the group.

"When we talk to people and people realize the impact of these cuts on their families and their neighbors, they understand it and they are willing to pay," he said.

The group does not advocate for tax increases in specific areas, but if the way to maintain quality of life in Kansas is a sales tax increase, the group would support it, Desetti said.

"The money needs to be there, and it is up to the Legislature to determine how to get there," he said.