Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Session holds divisive issues

April 28, 2002

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— After failing to solve the state's budget woes in a 90-day legislative session, lawmakers will return Wednesday for another go at it.

But many of them can't even agree on basic numbers.

On one end, Gov. Bill Graves has called for bridging the $700 million shortfall in a $4.4 billion budget with cuts and tax increases.

At the other end is a group of conservative lawmakers who say the shortfall doesn't exist and who oppose any tax increases.

In the middle are many lawmakers who say cuts, tax increases and reducing state fund balances will be needed to craft a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

But no consensus has been reached on any plan. Throw into the mix reports of teacher layoffs across the state and a bloody political battle over congressional redistricting and there exists the recipe for a predicted result: meltdown.

Even Graves is bracing for the Legislature to fail during the 11 days allotted to the wrap-up session, saying a special legislative session is probable.

In the days leading to the wrap-up session, Graves said he had met with no lawmakers about plans to end their work.

"The lack of any information, or you might say commitments, from legislators of both parties from both chambers on what they will support in a revenue package, is the main area of concern in resolving the whole session," said Graves, a Republican. "I don't have a good sense right now of where the Legislature is going to find the votes to pass any revenue package."

A House-Senate conference committee reached tenuous agreement on a budget that will require anywhere from $222 million to $332 million in additional resources, but there exists no agreement on how to fund it.

One group insists taxes will not be part of any solution.

"Just as families have to learn to live with less and private business has to reduce staff and cut expenses, state and local government must also become leaner and more efficient," said Rep. Andrew Howell, R-Fort Scott, president of the Kansas Legislative Education and Research group, which is composed of 50 conservative lawmakers.

Any tax increase will harm the state's economic recovery and provide a hardship for the thousands of Kansans who have lost their jobs during the current economic slump, Howell said.

Graves said the no-tax talk made a nice sound bite but wasn't based in the reality of slumping state revenues.

"They're out of touch with the realities of what the citizens in their districts expect of them. Kansans understand a pragmatic, balanced approach to this budget situation. This Legislature is underestimating how much Kansans have come to depend on and insist on the availability of government services," Graves said.

Howell and his group said a no-new-tax plan could be accomplished partially by using fund reserves that had been set aside for situations such as now.

But Graves' budget director Duane Goossen said a no-tax plan would drain the reserves to dangerous levels that would disrupt the state's ability to pay bills during the year or provide a cushion should revenue fall below projections again.

"It leaves no hope for the next budget year. It gets you past the elections, but it's an extremely short-sighted solution and will produce a precarious financial situation," Goossen said.

Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe, who opposes any tax increase, said she didn't know whether the Legislature would approve higher taxes.

"We have a very close vote in the House and Senate. It will not be with a large majority; it will be with just one or two votes," she said.

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