Lawmakers Advance Budget Changes

By John Celock

Seeking to clear up a deficit in the current budget, the Kansas House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that authorizes $247 million in transfers.

The budget transfer bill comes as lawmakers seek to plug a multimillion deficit in the current spending plan. The deficits come after a series of revenue declines following deep tax cuts enacted by the state in 2012. Democrats and moderate Republicans used Tuesday’s budget debate to criticize the tax cuts, while conservative Republicans sought to frame the debate as helping to plug the current budget shortfall that could leave the state without enough money to pay its bills in two weeks. The bill passed the House on a voice vote.

“Today our state is looking for us to lead,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) said during the debate. “This bill make minimal changes in state services.”

The proposal Ryckman described includes a $158 million transfer out of the state Department of Transportation, along with transfers from the state Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Endowment for Youth Fund, along with delaying capital transfers in the budget. The proposal included an adjustment from an original budget change bill proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Much of the debate centered on Democrats and moderate Republicans attacking the tax cuts. Brownback has said that he did not plan for the tax cuts in the scope that was adopted by lawmakers in 2012, rather placing the blame with state legislators for the plan, including moderate Republicans who at the time controlled the state Senate.

Rep. Don Hill (R-Emporia), a moderate Republican, used the debate to say that lawmakers are hurting a fiscal legacy built by prior legislators.

“There has been a body of work in this chamber and across the rotunda and in this building that is a legacy that goes back decades,” he said. “We have pretty well managed to decimate a whole lot of really good work.”

Hill, who said that he regrets his past tax votes, accused leaders of rushing the tax cuts through in 2012.

“We were on the fly, we were rushed, we were pressured, we were, some of us bullied,” Hill said.

Rep. Steve Brunk (R-Wichita) disagreed with Hill’s accusation that lawmakers were bullied. He recalled the 2012 debate as “intense.”

“To say we succumbed to bullying and pressuring is incorrect. It was intense,” he said.

Brunk defended the tax cuts and said that calls made Tuesday to raise taxes are “wrong.”

Rep. Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) focused her comments on transfers out of the Kansas Endowment for Youth. She said the KEY Fund helps provides money for a series of children’s programs including Early Head Start, Parents as Teachers, childcare assistance and autism programs.

Ballard noted that the KEY program is funded through funds the state received from the tobacco settlement and that any cuts come as that revenue stream begins to decline.

The KEY Fund has been a top priority for Democrats to defend, including through unsuccessful amendments during a House Appropriations Committee meeting on Monday. No amendments relating to the program were offered during the floor debate.

“I don’t have an amendment. If I did it would be don’t take the $12 million. That money has a base,” Ballard said. “It has families, it has children that are dependent. I know we need to come up with funds. But we also need to protect those children and those families.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans largely did not seek to use the debate to offer amendments to the bill. Rep. Tom Phillips (R-Manhattan) did take to the floor to propose an amendment that would require the state Department of Transportation to issue $51 million in bonds to cover $51 million that was being transferred out of the state’s transportation spending program, TWorks, for maintenance programs.

“In order to get farm products from the field to the market we need our great highway system,” Phillips said. “The same is true to Johnson County.”

Phillips said that the economic development being seen in Manhattan, the home of Kansas State University, is mainly do to road improvements, including widening two highways that serve Manhattan to four lanes.

Ryckman earlier in the debate had said that state Transportation Secretary Mike King has assured the Appropriations Committee that the capital projects already slated by the department would continue and that some maintenance would be deferred. In response to Phillips’ amendment, House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told the House that KDOT leaders had assured him that deferred maintenance would not hurt the state’s roads or bridges.

“I appreciate the maker of the amendment and what he is attempting to do. The $51 million in preservation projects are by all accounts are not projects that are not necessary at this time,” Claeys said. “They have indicated that the delays we’re talking about will not compromise the system.”

Claeys noted that bond process could actually in the end cost the state more than waiting. He said that federal highway funds for the maintenance projects will be deposited into an account with the state treasurer’s office where they will earn interest. He said that the administrative costs for the bond sale would hinder the state. Claeys also said that by the time the bonds were sold the funds would not be able to used in the current fiscal year.

Claeys said due to the timing, he plans to have his committee focus on transportation maintenance and capitol programs as part of the discussions for the next two fiscal years.

Phillips responded to Claeys by saying that the Legislature should show that they support roads.

“We are the policymakers in this body and we get to decide where to spend money,” Phillips said. “If we decide that road maintenance is a priority we should decide there is a policy interest.”

The Phillips amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

Other opponents focused on cuts to the Kansas Highway Patrol, disaster spending and small business issues. Ryckman said that the budget continues to contain extra funds for disaster relief in the event of an emergency. He also indicated that he expected the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee to address potential cuts in the numbers of troopers employed by the Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol question was posed by Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita), the top Democrat on the public safety budget panel.

Rep. John Wilson (D-Lawrence) questioned why the bill contained cuts from a state job creation fund, noting that legislative candidates campaign on job issues.

“Most of us are up here because we said we want to create jobs,” Wilson said. “I find that amusing.”

Ryckman noted that the debate Tuesday gave him a preview of what to expect on budget issues during this legislative session, including when the next budget reaches the House floor. He also stressed again to lawmakers that Kansans were expecting leadership and that the budget changes were needed.

“Like anyone running a business or farm we need to make adjustments to pay our bills and provide certainty,” Ryckman said.