The Kansas legislative session is not yet two weeks old, but there are already signs of the change that many voters called for in the recent elections.
New legislative leadership and an aggressive group of newcomers are pushing back against many of Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget proposal, which they say won’t fix structural problems with the state budget.
Message From Voters
From the earliest days of the campaign season it was evident that many voters were frustrated about the “budget mess” in Topeka.
Way back in May, Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican, got an unexpected earful from constituents during a listening-tour stop in Gridley, a small town in southeast Kansas just off U.S. Highway 75.
“The people of Kansas are dissatisfied with our government and they’re not happy with what’s going on,” said Jim Ochs, a rancher and retired school principal, interrupting Knox only minutes into the meeting.
“Well, I read that in the papers,” Knox said, attempting to get back on script.
“But you’re not doing anything about it,” Ochs and others in the room shouted back.
Three months later, voters ousted Knox in the primary. He was one of dozens of conservative incumbents defeated by more moderate Republicans in the primary and Democrats in the November general election.
The message was loud and clear to lawmakers who survived, said Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton who after years as a back-bencher was elected majority leader in December.
“The majority of the returning legislators and certainly the newcomers are coming in having heard the message from the voters that ‘we’re tired of these smoke-and-mirrors games of trying to patch together a state budget. You need to fix this mess,’” Hineman said.
No Quick Fix
Lawmakers face an immediate gap of $350 million and a bigger one in the coming budget year. They must find nearly $1 billion in cuts or revenue for this year and next or the state could be awash in red ink.
Confronted with similar challenges the last couple of years, Brownback and lawmakers applied a series of Band-Aids.
That is no longer the strategy, Hineman said.
“We can’t keep doing this. We need a long-term structural fix to this imbalance we have between revenue and expenditures,” he said.
The desire for a “structural fix” already has put lawmakers at odds with the governor.
The budget Brownback offered again relies on one-time money. It includes proposals to sell off future payments from the state’s tobacco settlement for a lump-sum payout, delay contributions to the state employee retirement plan, siphon more money from the highway program and borrow from a state investment fund.
“The damage that would be done with that budget is incredible,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe-Moore, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan. “So, I think he just actually helped us. He made the case for overhauling the tax plan.”
Wolfe-Moore is part of a growing group of lawmakers seeking to roll back parts of Brownback’s signature income tax cuts. As a starting point, they want to repeal a tax exemption given to more than 300,000 business owners and farmers even though Brownback continues to defend it.
“The purpose of our small-business tax cut has been to increase the number of small businesses and increase private-sector growth. That policy has worked,” Brownback said in his State of the State speech.
It appears the governor is fighting a losing battle. Even Koch Industries — a politically influential conglomerate that’s benefitting from the exemption — now favors its repeal.
Spending Cuts And Tax Increases
Taking the exemption off the books will help, but it won’t come close to closing the budget gap. That, Hineman said, will require some tough decisions on spending cuts and tax increases.
“If we can’t do it with budget cuts, then I think the public is ready for us to look at new sources of revenue,” he said.
A number of potential tax increases are in the discussion, according to Hineman and other legislative leaders. They include everything from hikes in the tobacco and gas taxes to an income tax surcharge to reductions in the property tax break farmers get on cropland.
Reaching agreement on how much to cut, which taxes to increase and by how much won’t be easy.
But unlike recent sessions, when debate was stymied and lawmakers were pushed to the point of tears, it appears there will be an open discussion about how to achieve that balance.
Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican, said the massive influx of new lawmakers and resulting shake-up in the legislative leadership have created a more collegial atmosphere in the Statehouse.
“Oh yeah, this is a new world,” Concannon said. “The leadership now is willing to talk about things. They’re willing to have debates. Listen to all sides. They’re respectful of each other. It’s great.”
Great so far. But the hard work is just beginning.
Jim McLean is managing director of KCUR’s 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.