Kansas budget negotiations abruptly end

Negotiations among Kansas legislators over the next state budget halted abruptly Friday, preventing an agreement on higher-education spending, stalling discussions on tax legislation and delaying the end of an annual session that’s already lasted longer than predicted.

Three senators and three House members canceled talks on the final version of a state budget of roughly $14.5 billion for each of the next two fiscal years, starting in July. The talks made some progress Thursday, but the two chambers still significantly differ over how much to cut spending for state universities, community colleges and technical colleges.

Republican leaders were waiting for a budget agreement to move ahead with negotiations between the House and the Senate over legislation cutting income taxes. The most contentious issue is whether Kansas stabilizes its budget while personal income tax rates drop by canceling all or part of a sales tax decrease set by law for July.

But Senate budget negotiators pressed their House counterparts for one final offer to resolve higher-education spending issues. Gov. Sam Brownback wants to keep spending flat for the next two years, but the House approved a 4 percent cut during the next fiscal year. Senators are pushing for a 2 percent cut, phased in over two years.

Lead House negotiator Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, canceled the budget talks, saying he couldn’t produce a final proposal as quickly as senators wanted.

“It will take time for us to get a final, final offer,” he said.

The House also is standing by a proposal it passed to cap the state’s spending on salaries, saving more than $63 million. GOP senators want extra money for salaries.

The two chambers’ disagreements on taxes — to be settled by different teams of negotiators — complicated the budget discussion.

“Clearly we are at an impasse,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and member of the Senate budget negotiating team. “How do we do a budget when we don’t even know how much revenue we have? We should do taxes first.”

Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature had promised that lawmakers would finish their business in 80 days, trimming 10 days off the annual session’s normal schedule. But Friday was the 84th day, and with more meetings planned Monday, it will reach 87 days.

Even with the impasse, top Senate Republicans insisted that efforts to wrap up business for the year are going well.

“I think we are breaking through,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “Sometimes it takes a little time for everyone to get a common understanding.”

Brownback and GOP leaders in both chambers want to follow up on massive personal income tax cuts enacted last year with additional reductions in rates. But Kansas must first stabilize its budget.

Brownback wants to keep the sales tax at its current rate of 6.3 percent rate rather than letting it drop to 5.7 percent in July as promised by a budget-balancing law enacted three years ago, before Brownback took office.

The House initially wanted to let the tax drop as planned, but its GOP leaders now are proposing to lower the tax to 6 percent. The Senate approved Brownback’s plan, and Wagle said that “anything much under that could easily get a veto.”

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the governor has not given lawmakers a specific figure that they must now approve for the sales tax.