‘It’s A Tall Order’: Budget Challenges Loom For Kansas Legislature

Mar 3, 2017

It is not hyperbole to say the challenges that members of the 2017 Kansas Legislature face are among the most daunting in state history.

In the next three months, they must find ways to erase hundreds of millions of dollars in red ink to avoid deficit spending, which the Kansas Constitution prohibits. They also must devise a new school finance formula and come up with the estimated $800 million it could take to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, which on Thursday declared the current funding formula inadequate and therefore unconstitutional.

Individually they are huge tasks, but lawmakers must tackle them in tandem amid a charged political environment with the clock ticking toward a hard deadline: the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30.

“It’s a tall order,” says Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Hensley recalls that a rewrite of the school finance formula he worked on as a member of the House in the early 1990s took two full sessions to complete.

“We don’t have that kind of time now that the Supreme Court has set a deadline of June 30,” he says.

In anticipation of the school finance decision, Hensley urged legislative leaders to establish a special committee to work on a new formula over the summer and fall, but the Republicans in control at the time rejected the idea. Consequently, Hensley says, lawmakers now have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time.

“We’re halfway through the legislative session, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to cause us to go beyond what we normally would have as a 90-day session,” he says.

Lacking Clear Consensus

In addition to the time crunch, the politics surrounding the school finance and tax issues are difficult. There is no clear consensus among lawmakers on how much to rely on tax increases versus spending cuts to balance the budget. Likewise, there is no agreement on what to prioritize in the new school funding formula or how much to spend.

Those divisions were evident last month when Senate Republican leaders abruptly canceled a planned vote on a budget-balancing measure that would have cut more than $120 million from public schools after concluding they didn’t have the votes to pass it.

To a lesser extent, they also were evident when senators attempting to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill that would have raised personal income taxes and repealed a controversial business tax exemption fell three votes short.

“We really don’t have the time to play politics. We’ve got to work together and find solutions. That’s what we ran on.”

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of the Senate’s budget-writing committee, says it is not clear if the Kansas Supreme Court’s order and the need to raise money to comply with it will break the stalemate.

“That’s what I certainly want to find out next week, because I heard from some of my leadership that some people still want a cuts plan,” McGinn says. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

No Time To ‘Play Politics’

Workflow issues also are complicating matters. As a first order of business, lawmakers must close a projected $280 million gap in this year’s budget before they can address next year’s estimated $500 million shortfall and move on to deciding how to generate whatever additional revenue may be necessary to fund the new school finance formula.

How lawmakers decide to meet those challenges will largely depend on how much the recent election shifted the balance of power in the Legislature. A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House recently overpowered conservatives on key votes to expand Medicaid and override Brownback’s tax bill veto.

No such coalition yet exists in the Senate. But one of those moderate Republican newcomers, Sen. Dinah Sykes of Lenexa, is hoping to see a majority coalesce around the budget and school finance issues.

“We really don’t have the time to play politics,” Sykes says. “We’ve got to work together and find solutions. That’s what we ran on.”

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics in Kansas. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.