Unexpected rejection of the Senate Republican leadership’s plan to begin socking tax dollars away in a rainy-day fund did more than expose disagreement on a wonky state government budget idea.
The bipartisan vote to kill the savings-account bill put on public display raw hostility in the Capitol inspired by the blossoming 2018 gubernatorial race and anxiety produced by the Legislature’s obligation to answer Kansas Supreme Court rulings capable of forcing hundreds of millions of dollars in new state investment in K-12 public school districts.
Consideration of the rainy-day bill also mirrored several floor debates last week that brought into focus fraying decorum in the Senate, which attempts by rule and tradition to avoid the Wild West atmosphere of the House.
“I really hated losing that bill,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “I can’t believe Republicans voted against a rainy-day fund. Losing a bill on the floor, and allowing Democrats to take down a bill, that’s not a good deal.”
Ten conservative Republicans sided with a couple of moderate GOP members and all of the Senate’s Democrats to reject the bill 19-21 in what was viewed as a rebuke of the Senate Republican leadership.
“You can’t just name a bill ‘rainy-day fund’ and expect everybody to vote for it,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and leader of the informal Truth Caucus.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the savings fund, which would benefit from unanticipated surges in tax revenue, was unlikely to prove beneficial. The Legislature routinely suspended a law mandating a 7.5 percent ending balance in the budget, he said.
“A rainy-day fund in statute is worthless,” he said.
Wagle said she was concerned about the Legislature’s ability to work through disagreements on budget and policy matters during this election year, given the large influx of new members following the 2016 cycle. The House is up for election in 2018, but it isn’t an election year for the Senate. So far, six of 40 senators are running for statewide office or Congress.
“Voters were very angry last election cycle, and we’re about to hit another election cycle,” Wagle said. “There’s going to be a lot of chaos on the floor.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and candidate for governor, said she had a long record of support for a rainy-day fund but questioned the form and timing of the Senate bill.
“It is an important element to sound fiscal management,” Kelly said. “However, in order to be effective, it needs to be constitutional and timing of implementation needs to be taken into consideration. When we can’t pay our bills and pay down our debts, it is no time to be putting money away in savings.”
As legislative workdays grow longer and stakes get higher, lawmakers’ ability to be on their best behavior has been tested. Last week, senators were speaking out of turn on the Senate floor. Senators’ comments during debates turned personal. Flawed procedural objections were raised. Conflict erupted when members seeking to offer amendments felt ignored. Problems have arisen because some senators have taken to whispering their votes — forcing Senate staff to be proficient at lip reading.
“It’s been borderline embarrassing about how much chaos we’ve had on the floor in comparison to history,” Masterson said.
Wagle said she was certain Hensley would continue attempts to inspire discontent designed to damage Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer and other GOP candidates for governor.
“The minority leader and I are very close friends,” she said. “I know the minority leader’s goal is to make sure he elects a Democrat governor, because when he gets a Democrat governor, he has a tremendous amount of power. My goal is to elect a Republican.”
In turn, Hensley said, the Senate ought to focus on determining how to finance Kansas schools in a way satisfactory to the Supreme Court. The justices have repeatedly declared unconstitutional the state’s approach to financing education and set an April 30 deadline for fixing the latest issue.
“If you get hung up on a rainy-day fund and politics of the governor’s race, that’s a distraction from the task at hand,” Hensley said.
Hensley did offer an amendment — rejected by the Senate, as expected — that would have added $600 million to school budgets over three years.
Wagle said the amendment would have necessitated another tax increase, which she said was “not a road I want to take my Republicans down.”
After the 2012 Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback slashed income taxes in a robust supply-side economic experiment, the resulting state budget shortfalls were covered with cash transfers, spending reductions, a 2015 increase in the statewide sales tax and the 2017 repeal of the Brownback income tax cuts. State revenue has eclipsed revenue forecasts in the current fiscal year.
“This is going to be a very difficult end of session,” Wagle told Republican senators in a meeting, noting looming financial implications of the education lawsuit. “They want more than we are can afford to give them.”