The Kansas Legislature on Monday convened its 2016 session for what many lawmakers hope will be a much shorter, less tumultuous affair than last year.
After the House of Representatives completed its brief, beginning-of-the-session duties and adjourned Monday afternoon, House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said he's not opposed to heading out of Topeka in good time.
“Yes, I’d like to have a short session, but we’re going to be here till we get the job done, as the people of Kansas expect,” Merrick said.
“We had our battle,” Merrick said, referring to the 2015 session in which the Legislature raised sales and cigarette taxes to fill a big budget hole — and remained in session a record 114 days. “It was a tough battle. I don’t want to repeat it.”
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A standard session is 90 days. All House and Senate seats are up for election this year, and many incumbents would like to go short, possibly as short as 75 days. That would allow more time for campaigning.
But budget and tax controversies would seem to be unavoidable in the 2016 session.
The state budget has been rocky. Income tax rates were cut starting in 2012, and income taxes were eliminated on many small business owners, moves taken toward Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to eventually eliminate income taxes altogether.
But the budget experienced repeated gaps, filled by the 2015 tax increases and by budget adjustments. Those adjustments included the transfer of millions of dollars from the highway fund to the general fund.
“I think a lot of the session we’re going to be watching our revenue figures come in month by month,” Kleeb said.
“If tax revenues come in where they should be or not too far off, I think we’re going to be OK,” he said. “I think we’ll find the governor has a plan to get us through.”
At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Brownback will deliver his State of the State address in which he’s expected to maintain that his tax policies don’t need altering.
The budget can be managed in 2016 without tax increases, Brownback said recently. The administration will present budget changes on Wednesday to deal with shortfalls.
The current budget is teetering into the red, and the fiscal 2017 budget has a projected shortfall of about $170 million.
Before Brownback’s speech, lawmakers will hear the results of a state government efficiency study by consultants Alvarez & Marsal.
Legislators spent $2.6 million for the study, which will make recommendations about budget savings and cost-cutting.
Merrick said he’s confident the savings potential will be big, but he said the recommendations shouldn’t be considered a budget “bailout.” He said the recommendations first must be adopted and implemented.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said Monday the idea that legislators can keep the session short may be wishful thinking.
“From comments I’ve heard from leadership and the administration, it would appear to me that we’re going to just stick our heads in the sand, patchwork the budget and try to get out of Dodge ASAP,” Kelly said.
“But I think there are too many extraordinary issues we must deal with,” she said, mentioning Medicaid expansion and tax policy.
Another is school funding. Legislators plan to write a school financing formula to replace a temporary block-grant funding plan, but they may wait to do that work next year.
“I don’t expect to see that tackled too seriously,” Kleeb said.
Before the session convened Monday, a special committee on foster care approved a recommendation that peer-reviewed, evidence-based factors of “family structure” be given a high priority in placing children in foster care. Democrats were concerned the language would allow discrimination against same-sex couples.
The committee also recommended that the Legislature create a foster care oversight committee.