Fiscal issues dominate agenda
By JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA -- Kansas legislators began their annual session today facing a budget shortfall and a court order to boost spending on public schools, but many want to cut income taxes for the second consecutive year.
Both the House and Senate will have new leaders, conservative Republican majorities and plenty of new faces following last year's elections. With GOP moderates ousted from power in the Senate, many lawmakers anticipate reviving a wide variety of failed measures, including proposals to reshape the state's appellate courts and create a 401(k)-style pension plan for new teachers and government workers.
Legislators convened in the afternoon to be sworn into office and elect top leaders, a formality after Republicans caucused in December to select Ray Merrick of Stilwell as the new House speaker and Susan Wagle of Wichita as the new Senate president. Gov. Sam Brownback, also a conservative Republican, plans to outline his agenda Tuesday evening in the State of the State address and release details about his budget proposals Wednesday morning.
The governor and legislators must close a projected $267 million gap between anticipated revenues and existing spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning in July, a shortfall tied to aggressive income tax cuts approved last year.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called it a "self-inflicted crisis."
The state's sales tax also is set to drop in July, and GOP leaders expected to consider canceling the decrease and tightening spending to allow for additional income tax reductions.
But last week, a three-judge panel hearing a school funding lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court ruled the state's per-pupil aid didn't meet requirements under the state constitution because it has dropped since 2008. If legislators complied with the court order, they'd increase annual spending on schools at least $440 million. The state already is planning an appeal, and Republican leaders denounced the decision, suggesting they'll defy it.
"I am committed to restoring to Kansas the fundamental American principle that only the elected representatives of the people of Kansas -- accountable to them at the ballot box -- may enact laws regarding spending and taxation," Wagle said in a statement.
Republicans hold majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House. Those are the same as the margins before last year's elections but with Wagle and other conservatives running the Senate after their allies ousted GOP moderates in primaries.
Political redistricting last year also helped raise a crop of new faces. The 125-member House has 49 members who never have served in the Legislature. Sixteen of the 40 senators are new to the chamber, though a dozen previously served in the House.
The turnover has many conservatives eager to try again to pass proposals that previously stalled in the Senate. That's true for proposals to change the selection process for appellate court members, in which a commission with an attorney majority screens applications and nominates three finalists for the governor, with no role for legislators. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans hearings on the issue Wednesday and Thursday.
But GOP leaders aren't sure how the new members will feel about keeping the state's sales tax at its current 6.3 percent rate rather than letting it drop to 5.7 percent as planned in July. Legislators and Brownback's predecessor as governor raised the tax in 2010 to help close a previous budget shortfall but promised most of the increase would be temporary.
Brownback pushed unsuccessfully last year to keep the sales tax rate in place to offset aggressive income tax cuts designed to stimulate economic activity. While there's support among Republicans for canceling the sales tax decrease, it's been mostly in the context of linking that change to further income tax reductions.
"Having new members, we don't know where everybody is," said incoming House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican.