Government & Politics

Kansas state workers could face furloughs if Brownback, lawmakers don’t strike a deal

If Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature don’t come to a budget compromise before June 18, state agencies could face a shutdown.
If Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature don’t come to a budget compromise before June 18, state agencies could face a shutdown.

Kansas is less than two weeks from being unable to pay state workers unless Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature resolve their standoff on a budget fix.

Brownback vetoed a bill Tuesday that would increase income tax rates to raise $1.2 billion over two years to fill the state’s budget hole and pay for a court-ordered increase to school funding. If the governor and the Legislature don’t come to a compromise before June 18, state agencies could face a shutdown.

“Without action by the legislature, we do not have the necessary authority to pay state workers, causing difficult decisions to be made regarding the continued operations of state government,” Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, said in an email Monday evening a few hours before the Legislature’s passage of a tax bill prompted Brownback’s promise to veto.

“Governor Brownback will continue to work with the legislature to ensure the work of state government continues uninterrupted,” Sullivan said.

Unless the Legislature passes a stopgap measure, this would mean furloughs for a large segment of state workers. Robert Choromanski, the executive director for the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents state workers, said he has repeatedly asked administration officials for their furlough plans.

Despite Sullivan’s warnings, the governor’s office said that it has not drafted a furlough plan.

“No. We are confident the legislature will act prior to June 18,” Melika Willoughby, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email. Willoughby’s email was sent less than 10 minutes after Brownback’s official Twitter account posted a photo of the governor vetoing the tax bill.

Choromanski said a memorandum of understanding requires the state to inform the union 30 days in advance of furloughs, but the union has received no notification.

“We haven’t heard anything from them. They’re just dead silent,” he said, accusing the Brownback administration of a lack of transparency.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, said a failure to quickly override the governor’s veto on taxes would make furloughs a more realistic possibility.

“It’s highly unlikely that we’ll get another budget bill passed in time to avoid those furloughs,” Hawk said. “It gets really dicey.”

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said he didn’t think an override attempt would be successful.

“They’re going to have to get a more reasonable tax package in order to get the votes they need,” he said. “So it seems like the process is working.”

Choromanski said furloughs would apply only to employees considered nonessential, such as case managers who process welfare applications.

Public safety employees, such as prison guards and Highway Patrol officers, are considered essential and “would be required to go to work, but wouldn’t necessarily get their pay right away,” he said.

“Our employees have mortgages to pay, bills to pay,” Choromanski said. “They need a paycheck.”

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, said she was optimistic lawmakers would pass a budget bill before June 18. “We just can't stall. We need to keep moving,” she said.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, noted that the state faced a similar situation in June 2015, but lawmakers passed a bill declaring more than 24,000 employees “essential” to head off furloughs.

“We find ourselves once again on the precipice, and we find legislators coerced by circumstance,” Carmichael said. “If we had been working the budget, if we had been working a real tax plan starting at Day 1 … we wouldn’t find ourselves in this last-minute potential disaster.”

He said frustration, mounting with now the second-longest legislative session in state history, would deepen if furloughs are made.

“If this was a business, the stockholders would fire the board of directors and the CEO,” Carmichael said.

Furloughs would extend to state universities unless the Legislature passes a budget fix or once again declares all state workers essential, said Breeze Richardson, the spokeswoman for the Kansas Board of Regents.

“We’re staying very optimistic that we won’t be in that place,” Richardson said.

She said that the Board of Regents’ employees would be instructed to watch the board’s website for furlough announcements the weekend of June 18, if it gets to that point.

Ann Bush, the spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Education, said the agency has not been instructed by the governor’s office to inform employees of possible furloughs.

“We’re just operating as normal as of this point,” she said.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

Related stories from Kansas City Star