Time for urgency at Statehouse

On Friday it will have been a month since the “wrap-up session” began.
On Friday it will have been a month since the “wrap-up session” began. The Wichita Eagle

Though the legislative session is beyond its allotted 90 days, lawmakers just took a four-day weekend. When they returned Tuesday for the 96th day, there was very little lawmaking – and the talk was of finishing their work not in a matter of hours or days but weeks. Where is the urgency?

In 2014 Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, could boast that the 79-day legislative session was the shortest in 40 years. “We are saving taxpayer dollars through this efficiency,” she said then. And she was right.

It follows that the 2015 session is wasting taxpayer dollars through inefficiency, even though Wagle and others have known since November that the state would face a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Earlier in the year, much significance was placed on the need to wait for new revenue estimates. But those came out April 20, letting lawmakers know they’d need a combination of about $400 million in tax increases or spending cuts for next year. On Friday it will have been a month since their “wrap-up session” began.

The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry detailed the $43,000 to $45,000 daily costs that mount past the 90-day mark, including each lawmaker’s $88.66 salary and $129 stipend each day.

As Kansas Democrats have observed, every day the Legislature is in session it burns through the equivalent of an average teaching salary in the state. That kind of cash also could have helped with staffing shortages across state government, or quickly covered the $77,000 cost of the Senate-passed (and House-killed) bill to set up live audio streaming of four Statehouse committee rooms.

The possibility of furloughing state workers amid the indecision was raised Tuesday, as lawmakers also were reminded of the lead time necessary to implement tax changes to take effect July 1.

Meanwhile, universities are deferring decisions regarding their budgets and tuition and fees for 2015-16, which means uncertainty for students and parents. Local governments are fretting about how their budgets might be affected by whatever ends up in the final legislative tax and budget bills. School districts, which were promised that the block-grant law would mean stable and certain funding, instead are fearing more cuts.

And the Legislature’s costly overtime comes as Kansas continues to be criticized nationally, including in a weekend Washington Post editorial, for its nickel-and-diming of the poor.

The Legislature has a way to go before topping the record of 107 days, which was set during a redistricting battle in 2002. How tax proposals fare in each chamber in the next couple of days could alter the pace. But the session is nearing the 99 days of 2012 and 2013.

What’s needed is strong leadership. That should start with Gov. Sam Brownback, who has been too much in the background regarding Statehouse efforts to pass a responsible tax policy that will right the state’s fiscal course.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman