TOPEKA — House and Senate Republican caucuses met separately Wednesday to air out mounting frustration with a lack of obvious solution for the state deficit surpassing $400 million hanging over lawmakers’ heads.
Sentiment of the partisan groupings, given the GOP’s majority of 97-28 in the House and 32-8 in the Senate, will dictate outcome of the financial scramble. The choice of spending cuts or tax increases is easily spoken but difficult to execute.
The Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee plans to make a renewed push today to move to the floor a bill imposing significant tax increases. A draft of the measure adds about $500 million to the state’s bottom line.
The House tax panel passed two bills hiking revenue, but the measure claiming $134 million by repealing Gov. Sam Brownback’s business tax break of 2012 could be dead on arrival. Today or Friday, the House could take up a separate bill raising state tax revenue by $362 million in the fiscal year starting July 1.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, told members of her caucus she would welcome a full-fledged House debate. It would help mark political divisions on income, sales and property tax options.
“We just need to see what’s viable,” Wagle said. “We have a lot of people who haven’t come together yet. There’s a lot of different ideas floating around.”
The Legislature isn’t expected to be in session this weekend, but pressure would build to resolve the budget quagmire before Memorial Day.
“I think we’re going to have to walk out with a balanced budget, and if we are unwilling to address the tax problem then we’re going to have to come forward with cuts. That will look rather ugly,” Wagle said.
Sen. Les Donovan, a Wichita Republican and chairman of the Senate tax committee, said the objective was to take a fresh run today at persuading the 11-member panel to approve a bill that raised taxes.
“We have to take a vote,” he said. “When it gets to the floor, it’s open for amendments. It’s open for whatever.”
He said he didn’t expect support from two Democrats on the panel, but was surprised several GOP members had thrown up firm obstacles.
“I’m in favor of having the tax chairman meet at all hours until something happens,” said Sen. Tom Arpke, a Salina Republican.
House Republicans left the Capitol, walked across the street and into the basement of nearby Hayden Building for an afternoon meeting meant to brief members on the pending House tax legislation.
Conversation pivoted to questions of why the Legislature hadn’t made a greater effort to cut state spending instead of pursuing higher taxes. It produced a feisty discussion.
Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, said the Legislature had little control over massive chunks of state expenditures but had worked in recent years to keep down spending it does control.
Ryckman, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, distributed a chart showing spending not pertaining to education, human services and pensions fell between fiscal years 2012 and 2015. Spending on education and the state retirement system was driven in part by court decisions and the need to pay down unfunded liability in the Kansas Public Employees Pension System, Ryckman said.
Ryckman rattled off a few ideas offered by lawmakers for cutting spending and spoke about why they likely wouldn’t work. Among them was the notion of saving cash by not filling open state positions.
“At the start of the session, I thought this would be a honey bun idea. I would really find some savings here,” Ryckman said, adding what he found out was disappointing.
In some cases, agencies are already understaffed, especially at the state’s hospitals. There isn’t much additional savings to be gained from keeping jobs open, said State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan.
“So, there’s not much savings to be gained there; there’s some savings to be gained there?” said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.
Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, argued Ryckman and Sullivan have cut budgets to the bone. He called the idea of finding greater savings an “illusion.”
Jennings, who previously ran the state’s juvenile justice authority, said lawmakers can’t ask state agencies, especially state hospitals and correctional facilities, to cut staff or keep additional positions open.
“Asking them to increase the shrinkage rate would be effectively saying, ‘we condone you operating facilities that are not only dangerous for the wards of the state but will become more dangerous for the people who work at them,’” Jennings said.
“And there comes a point where you can’t cut it any more than has been cut. And I can tell you from my experience, whatever it’s worth to you folks, we are there. We are there in terms of cutting agency budgets and believing that somehow there must be another pound of flesh to squeeze out.”