By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers voted Thursday to keep the Legislature’s pay-go budget rule in effect in the state House of Representatives for the coming two years.
The state House voted 40-82 to keep the rule in place that requires amendments to the budget bills on the floor that add funds, delete the same amount from the budget to keep the budget balanced. The debate came after the House rules package included a change to allow for pay-go to be suspended if the state’s ending cash balance is greater than 7.5 percent. Opponents of pay-go say the rule shifts power away from the full House to the Appropriations Committee, while supporters say it keeps the budget balanced.
“We operated this chamber and this state with all of the professionalism and with all of the debates and with all of the struggles and still came up with balanced budgets,” Rep. Henry Helgerson (D-Eastborough), who sponsored the amendment to end pay-go, said of his previous state House service from 1983-2001. “Pay-go was put in as a way of controlling the discussion on the floor.”
Helgerson said that he wanted a return to the practices of the 1980s and 1990s of floor debate and the ability to offer a number of amendments to the budget on the floor. He said that it worked during that time, saying that in the 1990s the state House had a period, similar to 2017, when the House consisted of an almost equal number of Democrats, conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans.
He said a return to that system would help the state address its current budget shortfall. The state faces a $348 million deficit on the current fiscal year’s budget and a multimillion-dollar shortfall for the coming fiscal years.
“What was done at that time was we decided that the three groups would have three people working on the budget,” Helgerson said. “We put budgets together that were passing out of here. We had intellectual discussions on where we were as a state and how we’d get out of this mess.”
House Minority Whip Ed Trimmer (D-Winfield) said the pay-go rule, implemented in 2011, has given more power to the House Appropriations Committee since lawmakers have to adhere to the final budget total the committee had developed.
Speaker Pro Tempore Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) disagreed with Trimmer saying that the pay-go rules have given more power to lawmakers. He said under the old rules, legislators added on a number of amendments, many to help their districts, and then waited to see if the six-member legislative budget conference committee, kept or killed their amendments.
Schwab said that with pay-go the House budget package that goes to the conference committee is a balanced budget and offers better protections for lawmakers’ projects since the conference committee would not be making deletions to balance the budget.
“This puts a process in place so those conferees go into conference; they can’t cut your amendment,” Schwab said.
Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) said that lawmakers have been able to make amendments and insert new programs into the budget but have had to find the money to pay for them. He cited moves by House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) in 2015 and 2016 to add money to the budget for state troopers and corrections officers as an example.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman (R-Dighton) questioned why lawmakers would end pay-go in a situation where the state is running deficits.
Helgerson said that he saw a move to end pay-go as a way to push for increased debate over the current budget deficit. During a House Appropriations Committee meeting earlier on Thursday, Helgerson, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee, questioned when the six House budget committees or the Appropriations Committee would start discussing Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) proposals to plug the current fiscal year deficit. Brownback’s proposals have included increased state borrowing, which Helgerson said he is against.
House Appropriations Committee Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) told Helgerson that the budget committees will be discussing the current budget deficit and would be making recommendations to the Appropriations Committee that would shape the final bill to deal with the deficit. The agenda for the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee shows the committee scheduled to hold two meetings next week to address the current fiscal year budget for at least four agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction.
During the floor debate, Helgerson said that he wanted budget hearings to start.
“If we wanted to start dealing with this budget, we’d start having hearings now,” he said. “This is the first step in a partnership or it’s the first step in a process to borrow more money.”