Kansas lawmakers struggled over the weekend working late nights trying to craft a budget solution. Ultimately, they approved a plan in the early hours of Monday morning.
Legislators had to find budget cuts and adjustments or tax increases that added up to nearly $300 million. The votes to increase taxes weren’t there, so they took another strategy: cutting.
“The Historical Society will lose $130,000. The Department for Children and Families will lose $4.2 million,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, an Atchison Democrat. “There are a number of very painful, painful cuts that will be enacted by this budget, and those cuts will be received by some of the most vulnerable people of our society.”
The bill still leaves it to Gov. Sam Brownback to do more than $80 million in trimming to keep the budget balanced. But the top budget writer in the House, Rep. Ron Ryckman, said legislators took an important step in directing those cuts: They exempted K-12 public schools from losing any funding.
“When we passed the block grant bill last session, one of the things we stated was that this was stable and secure funding in insecure times. Tonight is a continuation of that commitment,” Ryckman said.
Even with that direction, Republican Sen. Greg Smith said lawmakers abdicated their constitutional responsibility to craft a truly balanced budget.
“The sole power of the purse belongs to the Legislature, and for the last two budget cycles we’ve told the governor: ‘OK, we’ve got it this far, you take it the rest of the way,’” Smith said.
Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said legislators didn’t do anything wrong by requiring the governor to make some of the budget decisions.
“That’s what our Constitution allows for. When there’s a shortfall, the governor is allowed to make cuts,” she said. “We just gave this governor flexibility in the cuts and that it doesn’t have to be across the board.”
When those cuts are being made, they wouldn’t apply evenly across higher education. The bill says Kansas Board of Regents universities will take cuts proportionally based on the size of their total budgets, so the biggest schools — the University of Kansas and Kansas State University — get deeper cuts. Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka said that’s simply unfair.
“You are punishing KU and K-State for being big research institutions, and you are using the money that they bring to the state against them,” Kelly said.
In both chambers, the bill took hits for not fixing what some see as the underlying problem: tax cuts that have caused financial instability.
“We haven’t done anything to stop the bleeding yet. We’re just going to continue to bleed and bleed and bleed. This budget isn’t going to be any better than next year’s,” said Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Manhattan Democrat.
Andover Republican Sen. Ty Masterson countered, saying legislators are tackling the state’s challenges while reducing the footprint of government rather than increasing taxes.
“I contend we do tax our people enough. This is the proper action to take,” Masterson said of the spending cuts.
In both chambers some lawmakers objected to delaying nearly $100 million in state pension payments and taking money from the highway fund. And in both chambers it took the leadership time to apply pressure and get the votes needed. Eventually, enough lawmakers took the view of Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican who initially voted against the bill.
“We have to do our job here. I didn’t run for office to come up here and to vote no and criticize. I voted to take responsibility. Therefore, I’m switching my no to yes,” Holmes said.
And with that, the votes were there. With the budget passed lawmakers finished their work and left town. They’ll be back for the ceremonial last day in June, to officially put the 2016 session in the history books.
— Stephen Koranda is a reporter for Kansas Public Radio.