TOPEKA – A stop-gap plan for closing Kansas’ current budget deficit and ensuring bills are paid on time won state House approval Wednesday, despite bipartisan criticism of the measure.
The 88-34 vote in the Republican-controlled House sent the measure to the GOP-dominated Senate. Top Republicans there hope to take an up-or-down vote on the bill Thursday that could send it to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The bill attacks a projected $344 million shortfall in the current budget mostly by diverting money from highway projects and special funds into the state’s main bank account, where the deficit occurs.
It’s along the lines of a plan outlined by Brownback, but with tax collections falling short of expectations through January, a deficit of $800,000 would remain on June 30, according to new figures from legislative researchers.
And, even if the measure becomes law as expected, Brownback and lawmakers would have to close a $597 million shortfall in the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, according to researchers’ latest figures.
The state’s budget problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy.
More than a dozen House members lined up to submit explanations of votes criticizing the budget-balancing bill, even though many of them voted yes.
Several Republicans, more moderate than most of their colleagues, suggested lawmakers need to rethink the tax cuts, which dropped the top personal income tax rate 29 percent and exempted 191,000 business owners altogether.
“This bill is tantamount to handing a bottle of vodka to an alcoholic,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Overland Park Republican who voted for the measure nonetheless. “It is time for us to go to taxation rehab.”
The measure had no Democratic support in the House.
Brownback has proposed slowing down future promised income tax cuts and increasing tobacco and alcohol taxes, but those measures wouldn’t be in place before July. GOP leaders believe lawmakers need to pass a fix for the current budget by Feb. 13 to ensure the state can pay bills on time.
Many Republicans, including Brownback, continue to defend the past tax reductions, saying they’ve made the state’s economy more dynamic.
“We need to first look at our spending,” said House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a conservative Louisburg Republican.
Among other things, the bill approved by the House would divert $158 million in highway funds into the state’s main bank account to cover spending on education, social services, prisons and other general government programs. The move would delay as-yet-unidentified highway and bridge repair projects.
Because the measure focuses on shifting money around to cover the current budget’s shortfall, it pushes part of the problem into the next fiscal year, where the gap previously had been projected at $436 million.
GOP leaders weren’t troubled to learn that the measure doesn’t quite cover the current fiscal year’s deficit, saying lawmakers can make a few additional adjustments in the next few months.
“This may be an attitude that this is the best we can get for right now, so let’s get it approved,” said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican.