Archive for Wednesday, May 16, 2001

A timing issue

May 16, 2001

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Moving up the schedule for state revenue estimates might help avoid a repeat of this year's lengthy legislative session.

Even veterans of many long sessions of the Kansas Legislature said this year was the worst they could remember.

The session ran a total of 98 days, second in length only to the 103-day session of 1991. The Legislature took first adjournment after 85 days and planned to return for a four-day wrap-up. Budget woes pushed the wrap-up session to a record 13 days.

With such a long and contentious session now behind them, it's no surprise that legislative leaders are discussing ways to shorten their time in Topeka.

Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, had a relatively simple approach. The Hutchinson News reported this week that Kerr was in favor of cutting off pay to legislators after 90 days. It might work, but it's questionable whether even the lack of pay would have brought about a quicker consensus on budget issues this year.

The culprit many legislators blame for this year's long session was the state's Consensus Estimating Group which informed legislators on April 4 that the budget they had approved was $206 million higher that the expected revenue to fund it. That set up a standoff between the "no tax, no way" conservative legislators and legislators trying to negotiate adequate funding for such areas as public schools and higher education. Even without the contentious nature of this discussion, dealing with a $206 million shortfall that late in the session would have been a difficult task.

That's why it makes sense to look again at the legislative budget process and the schedule of the official revenue estimates. By statute, the Consensus Estimating Group meets the first week in November and April to issue its estimates. In many years, the April estimates necessitate only minor adjustments in the budget that is progressing through the Legislature. This year was different. Why take that chance? Why should legislators spend three months working on a budget only to find a few days before the scheduled end of the session that the figures on which they have based that budget have substantially changed?

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley is proposing a 15-day legislative break in March, before estimates are issued. That would give legislators more time after the break to deal with any surprises. Another option would be to change the statute and move the date of the estimating group's meetings. The estimates could, for instance be made in October and March. Moving the estimates up a month would make them slightly less accurate, but it would give the Legislature a firmer basis for their budget discussions and more time to make adjustments before the end of the session.

There is, of course, no guarantee that earlier estimates would shorten the session. In some years, higher-than-expected estimates actually have provided additional money that move some issues toward resolution in the closing days of the session. But having revenue estimates on the table earlier in the session would seem to promote a more thoughtful conclusion to the state's annual budget process.

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