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Archive for Monday, April 23, 2001

Painless process sought to fix budget shortfall

April 23, 2001

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— Work begins in earnest this week on the last spending bill of the year, and for many legislators the goal is to avoid as much pain as possible.

The state is confronting a $205 million gap between the spending to which it is committed and the revenues it expects to collect in the 2002 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee are both scheduled to meet Tuesday to begin drafting the bill that will reconcile spending with revenues and wrap up the 2002 budget. The committees have set aside six days each before the full Legislature reconvenes April 25.

Leaders have been talking about finding "low-hanging fruit," money-raising schemes that are easy to pluck and ripe politically. They have staff members compiling lists of gimmicks and tricks to make the fiscal 2002 budget look better.

They're also talking about tax increases, although those bring pain as well as relieve it. Democrats have focused on ideas that place the new burdens on the wealthy, and increases in sales, alcohol and tobacco taxes are in the mix.

Some legislators worry that resolving the budget problems will become a drawn-out epic, on the gaudy Technicolor scale of "Gone With the Wind."

"It's like Scarlett returning to Tara after the Yankee troops have been through," said Sen. David Adkins, R-Leawood, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

"We're going to try to make a dress out of the draperies," he said. "We'll be digging radishes out of the ground and waiting for Ashley to show up."

Before leaving the Capitol on April 6 for their spring break, legislators approved an incomplete $9.11 billion budget for fiscal 2002. About $4.66 billion would come from the general fund, which holds most state tax dollars and represents the biggest source of money for state programs.

The general fund is where the problem is. Legislators appropriated $4.66 billion from that fund, then learned they are obligated to spend an additional $19.9 million on social programs.

The proposals they have passed would increase general fund spending by $230 million, or 5.2 percent, from the current fiscal year. Outside the social programs, legislators can increase spending about $25 million, or 0.6 percent.

The situation may not sound so bad, and some legislators, particularly conservative Republicans, don't think it is. Some even view tough budget times as an opportunity to re-examine some spending that hasn't been questioned for years.

"You look at this as an opportunity," said Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "You can redirect some government programs."

But others disagree.

And lawmakers are under pressure to spend more money. Education officials and Gov. Bill Graves sought large increases for public schools. State employees want to preserve pay raises. University administrators worry about improving pay, to retain faculty.

Legislators are trying to find ways to close the budget gap without increasing taxes or cutting spending.

One idea, endorsed by members of both parties, is allowing the Department of Revenue to hire additional staff to improve its collection of delinquent taxes. A plan from Secretary Stephen Richards would spend $3 million to collect an extra $40 million in fiscal 2002.

There are also gimmicks. In years past, legislators have changed the collection dates on some taxes, to bring money in earlier so that a particular budget looks better.

Tax increases are a possibility. Increasing sales, tobacco, liquor, estate and income taxes all have been mentioned; senators even considered imposing a new tax on soda pop to raise money for public schools.

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