Kansas Lawmakers Advance Budget Fix

Rep. Pete DeGraaf speaks during the debate.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore speaks during the House debate.

By John Celock

The Kansas House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Thursday to legislation that would provide a fix to balance the budget for the remainder of this fiscal year.

The House passed on voice vote legislation that would allow the state to borrow money from the state’s Pooled Money Investment Board idle fund, along with a rescission bill that would make changes to the current budget. The move comes as lawmakers grapple with a $346 million deficit in the current budget. The House approval of the budget fix came just after lawmakers gave final approval to legislation that would restore taxes cut in 2012 for future fiscal years.

“This rescission bill does partner with the previous bill. It allows the state to balance the state budget for FY 17 with an ending balance of $99.6 million,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) said to open the debate.

The first piece of legislation allows the state to borrow the contents of the idle fund – $317 million plus $46 million in interest – and use that to help plug the budget hole. The plan requires that the state pay back the funds over six years starting in 2019. The rescission bill would require 50 percent of the ending balance be used to make a repayment of borrowing from the state’s pension fund, a change from the proposal made by Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

The proposal also includes an amendment from Waymaster – made in the Appropriations Committee earlier this week – that would require 10 percent of the ending balance, after the pension fund repayment, be placed in the state’s rainy day fund. The rainy day fund – created last year by lawmakers – does not have any funds in it.

The two bills garnered support from Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who noted that while she would not normally support the cuts or borrowing for operating expenses, she was in order to address the state’s budget crisis, where deficits have dominated the headlines since the 2012 cuts took effect.

Wolfe Moore said that it would be unfair to state agencies to ask them to make more cuts at this point in the fiscal year. She said the passage of the tax hikes also helped her to support the borrowing and cuts because it showed a long-term solution to the budget crisis.

“This is not an easy vote to take,” Wolfe Moore. “We are where we are and we have to solve this.”

The House adopted several amendments to the rescission bill. This included one from Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) to use savings from last year’s juvenile justice reform bill for new investments into community based juvenile justice programs. He said that this would speed up getting those funds to the community programs in the current fiscal year rather than the next one.

Budget writers had endorsed the juvenile justice plan but it was not placed in the rescission bill. Waymaster deemed the amendment friendly.

“It will show those at the community level that we are committed to investing in those at the community level,” Jennings said. “This gives them a head start to start implementing these programs before July 1.”

Rep. Pete DeGraaf (R-Mulvane) proposed several amendments with regards to vehicle and office supply purchases in the current fiscal year. DeGraaf was able to pass amendments that would require state agencies for the remainder of FY 2017 – which ends on June 30 – to wait to purchase new cars until they reach 130,000 miles and new trucks at the 150,000 mile mark. He also was successful in an amendment that would require delays in office supply purchases over $100 unless approved by the Department of Administration as necessary.

DeGraaf said these moves would allow potentially more savings to be found in the current budget. He noted that state agencies routinely used left over funds at the end of a fiscal year for new supplies.

Opposition from lawmakers forced DeGraaf to withdraw an amendment that would have required the Kansas Highway Patrol to replace all cars at the 100,000 mile mark for the remainder of the current fiscal year. Currently the Highway Patrol replaces cars used on the Kansas Turnpike at 100,000 miles and cars used in the rest of the state at the 50,000 mile mark.

Waymaster said that the Appropriations Committee had studied the Highway Patrol’s vehicle purchase program and understood the rationale used and Wolfe Moore said that she trusts the Highway Patrol to make decisions on when to make vehicle purchases.

House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) said that DeGraaf’s proposal would cost the state more in the long run.

“The Highway Patrol vehicle plan requires the turning over the vehicles at peak value.” Claeys said. “By changing the mileage requirement we will change the cost of the program and cost us more money. It does have a cost that comes with it.”

Rep. Diana Dierks (R-Salina) raised concerns that DeGraaf’s proposal would jeopardize public safety since there would be the possibility of cars with over 50,000 miles on them participating in high speed chases.

“You are putting people’s lives in danger,” Dierks told DeGraaf in the debate.

Wolfe Moore told her colleagues that passing the budget bills on Thursday would allow the Legislature to move on to other issues.

“There are a myriad of other things we need to address,” she said.