One way to look at the Kansas Legislature’s budget decision in the early morning hours on Monday: It lets the governor do most of the dirty work.
The Legislature narrowly approved a budget bill Monday and adjourned its sometimes-contentious but short 2016 session.
It was the shortest session, in fact, in 42 years. The bill to address a $290 million budget gap was its final piece of business, stitched together over several days.
Lawmakers agreed to delay a $99 million payment to the state pension system, with a provision to repay it by June 2018. But along with a sweep of $185 million from the state highway fund and a cut to state universities, the Legislature left it to Gov. Sam Brownback to make as much as $80 million in cuts to state programs.
That might seem an odd decision for legislators who at times during the 2016 session asserted themselves against Brownback, particularly over spending issues and bond programs.
“There’s a sense of, ‘You’re on your own now, you go fix this,’ ” said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
Even for those who voted against the budget bill for any number of reasons, that might not be a bad outcome in an election year. It puts the heat on the governor for his decisions about what to cut and how much, Rackaway said.
All Kansas House and Senate seats are up for election this year. With just three months to the August primaries, many lawmakers were eager to wrap up the session.
They decided to work through the weekend and past midnight Sunday, although some said the urgency was invented and the late-night, early-morning schedule was bad for policymaking.
The House vote for the budget bill, 63-59, came at 1:05 a.m. Monday after about an hour’s debate. The bill needed 63 votes to pass. The Senate vote, 22-18, came two hours later. The bill now goes to Brownback, who said he will sign it.
One matter still hanging for lawmakers: an upcoming Supreme Court decision. If the court decides a school funding plan passed by the Legislature in March doesn’t comply with its order, lawmakers would presumably reconvene.
“I may see you all this summer,” said Minority House Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and harsh critic of the Legislature’s school funding bill.
A big selling point of the budget bill for many lawmakers: It prohibits spending cuts to K-12 public schools.
In negotiations with the Senate over the budget plan, that provision was paramount for Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman. He presented the bill to the House and touted the shield for K-12 spending.
“The Legislature promised stable and secure funding for the duration of the block grant,” Ryckman said, a reference to the two-year school funding plan put in place in 2015.
The plan also provides $17 million for the Osawatomie and Larned state hospitals to make up for a loss of federal funds and to address low pay and staffing shortages. And it provides for the live-streaming of legislative committee hearings next year.
During the budget debate, many legislators denounced the state’s financial situation and decried the millions in reductions coming to state programs.
Rep. Jerry Henry, an Atchison Democrat, said the estimated $35 million cut to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment would hurt those in need of health services.
“I want to point out there are a number of painful, painful cuts that will be enacted by this budget, and those cuts will be received by some of our most vulnerable people,” Henry said.
The $290 million shortfall arose in April after state revenue estimates were revised downward. On Monday afternoon, the state Revenue Department reported tax collections for April were $2.6 million above the revised estimate for the month.
Lawmakers in February had taken action to close a $200 million budget gap.
Many blame the 2012 state income tax cuts urged by Brownback and approved by the Legislature for the state’s recurrent budget problems. The constant need to fix the budget is the source of much of the conflict at the statehouse, they say. Brownback has said the budget woes stem from the state’s sluggish economy.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, said he had no confidence that the delayed payment to the pension system, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, would be repaid in June 2018 as planned.
“I see nothing in the future that’s going to stop us from kicking the can down the road continuously,” Trimmer said.
The bill identifies two methods for repayment. One would use any excess revenue that comes in above the state’s revenue projections. The other would use the part of the state’s tobacco settlement receipts above the amount appropriated for children’s programs.
But that money is set aside for children’s programs and shouldn’t be diverted, said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat.
“The children’s program is being asked to pay a debt it did not incur,” she said.
Said Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Manhattan Democrat: “We haven’t done anything to stop the bleeding yet. We’re just going to bleed and bleed and bleed.”
Several senators also voiced strong objections to the budget plan. The bill failed in the Senate’s initial vote, 17-22, but several senators finally switched sides.
Hensley said the bill was bad on many counts, including the “raid on the highway fund” and the KPERS payment delay.
“I don’t believe we should be using KPERS as a credit card to try to pay our obligations,” he said.
The budget problem, he said, is on the revenue side.
“We have an issue with massive income tax cuts that have drained revenues from the general fund,” Hensley said.
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican who presented the budget plan to the Senate, chided that view, saying people are taxed enough.
“We’re supporting issues we need to take care of,” he said. “At the same time, we’re trying to reduce the footprint of government.”
Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, initially voted “no” but switched to “yes” after the vote was failing. Longbine denounced the state’s fiscal choices. He said the budget was structurally imbalanced by hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We cannot continue to take highway funds. We are taking more and more and more every single year,” Longbine said. “Those of us who come back next year better figure this out. We cannot continue to play this shell game.”
Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, said he was voting against the budget bill because it ceded the Legislature’s appropriation authority to the governor.
“It’s an abdication of our constitutional duty,” he said.
Lawmakers adjourned on the 73rd day of the session. Last year, the session lasted a record 114 days as lawmakers raised sales taxes to deal with a budget gap.
The session gets mixed reviews from lawmakers.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, lauded transparency reforms passed during the session, including the live-streaming of committee meetings and the closing of a loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act that allowed public officials to conduct public business by private email accounts.
Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican, said a highlight of the short session for him included property tax lid legislation, which moved up by a year the requirement that counties seek voter approval to spend property taxes that come in above the rate of inflation.
Another was the Legislature’s school funding bill, which was lawmakers’ response to the Supreme Court order to equalize funding between wealthier and poorer districts. The court will decide whether lawmakers hit the mark.
The Supreme Court’s order, however, was a low point, he said. For the court to say it would close schools if the Legislature didn’t fix the funding formula was a “tempter tantrum,” he said.
Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican, said the Legislature’s vote last week to keep the income tax exemption for businesses such as limited liability companies sent the right message.
“We’re recognized as one of the best states to start a business,” Lunn said. “We need to continue to make the business environment as good as we can make it.”
But Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, and Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said the statehouse seemed adrift all session, with no one providing leadership.
“What was the goal for this year? No one can tell you,” Bollier said. “I know what my goals are. My constituents want real revenue reform and public education funding stability, which are one in the same.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said the theme for the session was “run for cover.”
“We have not wanted to deal with issues,” she said.
How area legislators voted
A yes vote was to approve the budget.
House members from Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties:
Republicans voting yes:
Tony Barton, Leavenworth; John Bradford, Lansing; Larry Campbell, Olathe; Erin Davis, Olathe; Willie Dove, Bonner Springs; Keith Esau, Olathe; Amanda Grosserode, Lenexa; Brett Hildabrand, Shawnee; Mike Kiegerl, Olathe; Marvin Kleeb, Overland Park; Jerry Lunn, Overland Park; Charles Macheers, Shawnee; Craig McPherson, Overland Park; Ray Merrick, Stilwell; Connie O’Brien, Tonganoxie; Randy Powell, Olathe; Ron Ryckman Jr., Olathe; Scott Schwab, Olathe; Bill Sutton, Gardner; James Todd, Overland Park.
Republicans voting no:
Barbara Bollier, Mission Hills; Rob Bruchman, Overland Park; Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park; Linda Gallagher, Lenexa; Melissa Rooker, Fairway; John Rubin, Shawnee.
Democrats: All area Democratic representatives voted against the bill.
Senators from Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties:
Republicans voting yes:
Jim Denning, Overland Park; Steve Fitzgerald, Leavenworth; Julia Lynn, Olathe; Jeff Melcher, Leawood; Rob Olson, Olathe; Mary Pilcher-Cook, Shawnee.
Republicans voting no:
Greg Smith, Overland Park; Kay Wolf, Prairie Village.
Democrats: All area Democratic senators voted against the bill.