Leadership ready to slash state spending
By JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA -- Conservative Republicans in Kansas are ready to squeeze state spending next year to close a budget shortfall resulting from their push to cut taxes.
The GOP right will control the Legislature as its members and conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback tackle a projected $328 million gap between anticipated revenues and existing spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning in July 2013. Last week's elections resulted in Republicans keeping majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House, and the Senate is far more conservative than it has been.
The projected shortfall stemmed from massive income tax cuts enacted this year to stimulate the economy. Democrats argued in their campaigns the cuts would lead to drastic cuts in social services, aid to public schools and other programs. Brownback promises to protect core services, but he doesn't deny that a shrinking of government is part of the design.
"One way to shrink government is to choke the input," said Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican who serves on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Brownback and his allies have acknowledged a short-term budget gap would emerge in the wake of the tax cuts, before new economic activity generates additional revenues. Critics see a permanent budget crisis looming.
Democrats were quick to criticize Brownback's administration this summer, after Budget Director Steve Anderson instructed agencies to prepare proposals to cut their spending 10 percent.
"There are so many variables out there we felt it was only prudent. There's an awful lot in play," Anderson said last week. "We do believe we can handle it in the budget."
Before the election, Brownback didn't rule out keeping the state sales tax at 6.3 percent, rather than allowing it to drop to 5.7 percent in July as scheduled. The state boosted the tax in 2010 - before Brownback took office - to protect public schools and social services spending but pledged that most of the increase would be temporary.
Brownback himself proposed keeping the tax at 6.3 percent this year to offset income tax cuts, so that the effects on the budget were lessened. He argued that lowering income taxes would do more to boost the economy than dropping the sales tax, but many legislators resisted and said they should keep the promise to decrease it.
Democrats are waiting for Brownback to propose the idea again. Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon predicted, "That's at the top of the list."
But there are signs that the trial balloon on the sales tax is starting to deflate.
Newly elected conservatives could be wary. Ken Corbet, a conservative Topeka businessman who holds a narrow lead over Democratic Rep. Ann Mah of Topeka, wants to continue pursuing all forms of tax relief.
"If we don't get businesses here, we don't get families here, and it just trickles down from there," he said. "We should look at any tax we can cut."
The rhetoric out of the administration is about finding efficiencies. A key ally, the anti-tax, small government group Americans for Prosperity, strongly opposes canceling the sales tax decline.
"All that does is give yourself an out in not having to find reductions in spending," said Derrick Sontag, the group's state director, who is married to Brownback's chief spokeswoman.
Democrats and other Brownback critics have argued for months that the governor's popularity has slipped with enactment of the income tax cuts and the follow-up discussion of the budget consequences. Wagnon expects the effects of the tax cuts to be the key issue during Brownback's expected run for re-election in 2014.
"The message doesn't change," she said. "It gets stronger."
But Brownback and other conservatives express confidence that a majority of Kansans have embraced a low-tax, small-government philosophy, based on the GOP maintaining such large majorities.
Election Day exit polling showed that, when asked how they feel about the way Brownback is handling his job as governor, 55 percent said they approved and 35 percent disapproved.
Poll respondents were divided equally between men and women, and the percentage that self-identified as Democrats was about the same as the percentage of voters registered with the party. The exit poll of 718 Kansas voters was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research in a random sample of 10 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.
"It reflects that Kansans like the direction the state is taking," said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor's spokeswoman. "We're making progress."
The course plotted by GOP conservatives involves cutting taxes and shrinking government. They've cut taxes, and they'll be forced to shrink spending - and they're fine with that prospect.