TOPEKA — The 2017 Kansas Legislature closed with a whimper Monday after lawmakers declined to try overriding Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a budget provision limiting the executive branch’s ability to change Medicaid programs serving disabled people.
Fireworks were ignited after the House and Senate departed the Capitol with Brownback’s issuance of a broad rebuke of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“This legislative session made history, but for all the wrong reasons,” Brownback said. “Passing the largest tax hike in state history, this Legislature passed the biggest budget in state history, and they’ve already spent every dime.”
The Legislature previously overrode the GOP governor’s veto of a two-year, $1.2 billion increase in state taxes and the repeal of his signature income tax reductions passed in 2012. On Sunday, Brownback signed the $15 billion state budget bill that closed an anticipated $900 million shortfall during the next two years, but the governor declined to use his line-item veto power to stop ill-advised spending increases.
Brownback’s statement blasted the Legislature for relying on “borrowing and delaying payments” to conceal the depth of the state government’s long-term budget challenges.
“I thought that statement was very unwarranted,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
She said the budget recommended by Brownback in January depended on one-time maneuvers that included cashing out a $300 million investment fund, selling off future tobacco industry payments to the state, highway fund transfers, and delays in education and pension payments. His plan included higher tobacco and liquor taxes, but wouldn’t have resulted in a structurally balanced budget until 2019, she said.
“On Tuesday, we had the State of the State and he promised the entire Legislature that he’d give us a structurally balanced budget,” Wagle said. “On Wednesday, we got a copy of it, and it was balanced with one-time money and borrowing.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, had a comparable reaction to Brownback’s summation of the 114-day session.
“Sounds like to me he’s very bitter we had enough votes to override his tax experiment,” Hensley said.
Duane Goossen, who served 12 years as the state’s budget director and served as a Republican in the House, said the 2017 Legislature effectively ended Brownback’s exploration into supply-side economic policy. The governor signed into law five years ago a bill exempting owners of 330,000 businesses from the state’s income tax, deleted the state’s upper income tax bracket and reduced rates on other taxpayers. The state fell off a revenue cliff, but multiple rounds of budget cuts and elevation of the statewide sales tax in 2015 didn’t choke off the deficits.
“We became famous, the poster state for bad tax policy,” Goossen said. “The takeaway message for those watching was, ‘Don’t do what Kansas did.’ A practical approach to state finances and a sense of fairness about who should pay taxes triumphed over a discredited ‘trickle-down’ tax cut ideology.”
In terms of veto overrides, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, had promised to take a run at reversing deletion of the budget proviso forbidding consolidation by the Brownback administration of seven Medicaid programs serving people with autism, brain injuries and other disabilities.
Neither the House nor the Senate had robust attendance on what typically serves as the ceremonial last day of the session, and the Senate quickly adjourned before the House reached the procedural point to consider veto overrides.
“I would make the motion to override the governor’s veto, but our friends in the Senate had other engagements,” Ward said. “Standing up for the disabled and mentally ill in Kansas wasn’t on their agenda today, and they’ve gone home. It would be an exercise in futility, but it would be the right thing to do.”
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, and the chamber’s vice president, said there was insufficient interest among senators in the Capitol to debate Brownback’s vetoes.
“We counted noses,” he said. “The numbers clearly weren’t there.”
In addition, there was no push to override the veto by Brownback of a bill that would have allowed the Kansas Lottery to install 300 to 400 vending machines in retail locations. The governor vetoed that legislation, saying the addition of vending machines to sell lottery tickets in Kansas would have a “disproportionately negative effect on low-income Kansans.”
The lottery ticket bill won approval from the Legislature, in part because it earmarked revenue to programs serving the mentally ill.
The anti-climatic conclusion of a session marked by white-knuckle debates on taxes, budget, health care and guns did provide an opportunity for Democrat Jason Probst to be sworn into office as replacement for the late Rep. Patsy Terrell, who was found dead June 7 in Topeka. Terrell was a first-year representative serving the 102nd District in Hutchinson.
Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, also shared with colleagues plans to resign from the Legislature to devote more time to his family and career. He’s represented the 10th District since 2013.
“My attention and energy is divided. I might even say fragmented,” he said. “Now is actually a really great time to be in the Legislature. It’s just not a really great time for me.”