The Kansas Senate maneuvered to dodge a projected deficit Thursday by filling in a gaping budget hole with delayed payments and borrowing, but repelled cuts to public schools and state agencies sought by Senate President Susan Wagle.
Wagle, R-Wichita, made an impassioned pitch to her colleagues to carve 2 percent across the board out of this year’s budget, but met with resistance even from her own party. Her amendment to slash K-12 appropriations failed, but the final budget package passed 27-13.
Her pitch to help solve a $280 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year centered on the idea that cutting “two pennies on the dollar” would help minimize anticipated tax increases on average Kansans. The state expects a more than $1 billion gap between revenue and expenses by June 2019.
“This is a hardship,” Wagle said. “I’m asking my legislators to think about their families and try to help me keep this tax increase at a lower rate for our constituency.”
But lawmakers, including some conservatives, balked at rolling back the budgets of agencies and school districts with just three and a half months left in the fiscal year. They argued this magnifies the difficulty, because salaries and other obligations have long been locked in for the year, leaving government entities little wiggle room for finding last-minute savings.
“It’s asking too much to do these cuts so late,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee. “This is March 16. If this were serious, this would have been done at the beginning of January.”
After senators rejected Wagle’s $104 million cut by a vote of 33 to 7, they trounced alternatives offered by Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha. His proposals for across-the-board reductions of 1 percent and of 0.5 percent didn’t earn more than 10 votes.
“Let’s just drain the swamp just a tiny, tiny bit,” Pyle said.
Some senators were wary of K-12 reductions and cautioned against vexing the Kansas Supreme Court, which just weeks ago found state funding for schools unconstitutional and gave the Legislature a June 30 deadline to fix it. Observers believe Gannon v. Kansas could require the state to find hundreds of millions of dollars in extra aid for public education.
“This is only going to compound the problem,” said Senate Majority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, “and sends a very poor message across the street.”
The bill expected to clear the Senate conflicts with the budget remedy passed by the House. Negotiators from both chambers will attempt to resolve differences.
Trouble was brewing before the protracted floor debate in the Senate. In a caucus meeting before the vote, Wagle faced questions from unhappy GOP colleagues worried about detrimental effects to mental health services, education and other functions of state government.
Talk of cuts affecting schools has surfaced repeatedly this session, but with little momentum. A proposal to claw back 5 percent of this year’s budget passed a Senate committee last month but quickly stalled.
Lawmakers are under pressure not only to resolve the looming deficits but also to draw up a new school finance formula and determine the price tag for K-12 over the coming years.
The Senate bill — without Wagle’s and Pyle’s amendments — relies on delaying $150 million in payments to the state pension system. Under the bill, payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System would be gradually made up over 20 years.
In addition, the Senate bill would borrow $100 million from a state investment account to help the bottom line.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chairwoman of the Senate’s budget committee, gained approval of an amendment requiring the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to allocate $2 million to secure 20 more beds at Osawatomie State Hospital or a third-party facility for people in acute mental health crises.
Her amendment also placed $1 million into community-based mental health programs.