Archive for Monday, April 23, 2001

Lawmakers striving for balancing act

Difficult budget debates may send this year’s wrap-up session into overtime

April 23, 2001


— With four scheduled days left in the 2001 legislative session, a long list of issues remains unresolved.

The priorities that legislators cite include increasing spending on education, expanding health insurance coverage to mental illnesses and securing a sufficient energy supply for the state's future.

Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence, wont' back down in her quest to have the insurance industry offer mental health parity.

Overshadowing them all, however, is the state's budget problem, which legislators fear will keep them at the Statehouse past 90 calendar days.

Lawmakers reconvene Wednesday, the 86th day of their session. They are scheduled through Saturday, the 89th day, but are allowed to take more time to finish their work. The 1991 session lasted 103 days.

The biggest issue is whether the Legislature will raise taxes to make up for lower-than-expected revenues.

"What do we tell the poor family trying to make ends meet, that we're going to raise their taxes?" said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "You don't do a tax increase in a slow economy."

But Sen. Paul Feleciano, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said a tax increase is necessary to close the $206 million gap between expected revenues and the spending that legislators have already approved for the 2002 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"Unless the House is willing to meet us halfway, it's going to take a long time," said Feleciano, D-Wichita.

Before they recessed April 6, legislators approved a $9.11 billion budget that included $4.66 billion from the general fund, up about $230 million or 5.2 percent from general-fund spending in the current fiscal year.

The latest revenue projections, however, indicate that legislators will be able to increase general-fund spending only about $25 million, or 0.5 percent unless they find additional sources of revenue.

Gov. Bill Graves has said he will support a wide array of tax increases, and senators have seriously discussed raising taxes as well.

However, the House has consistently opposed a tax increase.

That is fine with Sen. Tim Huelskamp, who said the House's position leaves little to debate.

"I don't think we'll be here much longer than normal," said Huelskamp, R-Fowler. "The only thing we have to do is balance the budget."

House Speaker Kent Glasscock predicted no tax increase but declined to predict how long it would take legislators to wrap up their business.

"I actually think bringing the budget to a resolution is likely to be the resolution of the session," said Glasscock, R-Manhattan.

Democratic Rep. Jan Pauls, of Hutchinson, agreed.

"As soon as we get the budget resolved, which school finance is wrapped up in, I think we are through," Pauls said, predicting the session wouldn't run much longer than an extra day.

But Senate Majority Leader Lana Oleen called this year's budget hole the largest that legislators have faced in two decades.

Oleen, R-Manhattan, said finding partisan support and a budget acceptable to 21 of the 40 senators and 63 of the 125 House members would be difficult.

"That takes a while to come together," said Oleen, who said the session could extend five more days than planned.

House Minority Leader Jim Garner said legislators must do much more than pass the budget for the session to be considered a success.

"How long we are here depends on the will power of the folks in the Legislature to do something good," said Garner, D-Coffeyville. "I quit predicting a long time ago."

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