State budget battle renewed over furloughs, tuition

? So much for a honeymoon period for new Gov. Mark Parkinson.

On Wednesday as the Legislature reconvened for the wrap-up session, House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he would oppose efforts by Parkinson to delay the phase-out of tax cuts or decouple state taxes from federal tax breaks as a way to help fix a $328 million budget deficit.

Parkinson recommended both of those proposals as “modest revenue enhancements” during his first remarks after being elevated to the governor’s job Tuesday following the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, who was made secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And O’Neal continued to promote furloughing state employees, possibly one day per month. That would save the state about $72 million, he said.

But that idea got rough treatment from state personnel officials, labor representatives and higher education.

George Vega, director of the division of personnel services for the Department of Administration, said a furlough program should be considered only as a last resort.

Vega said in the private sector it may be easier to furlough workers because demand for products and services decreases in a weak economy. The opposite is true for many state agencies, he said, because demand for government services increases when the economy is hurting.

Officials also said implementing a furlough program would be extremely difficult because salaried, exempt workers must be paid a full week’s wages regardless of how many hours they work during a week, according to federal labor laws. And the U.S. Department of Labor has put states on notice that it will closely monitor furlough programs, they said.

Jane Carter, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said a furlough program is shortsighted, unfair and usually doesn’t save that much money.

“With caseloads on a sharp rise, unemployment skyrocketing, and many Kansans becoming increasingly more dependent on the state, now is not the time to furlough employees,” she said.

But O’Neal said the savings from a furlough program would probably save some employees from being laid off.

Tuition increases predicted

Meanwhile, higher education officials said budget cuts proposed by legislative committees to state universities would result in tuition increases.

“The prospect of a tuition freeze in this recommended budget context is really not doable,” Kansas Board of Regents President and CEO Reggie Robinson told the higher education caucus.

The increases, Robinson said, would depend on the individual universities. He added that the regents would try to keep the increases “as low as they possibly can.”

Because of shrinking revenue, the Legislature has cut higher education by 7 percent, or $63 million, in recent months. Even with the cuts, the regents had vowed to freeze in-state tuition for one year.

But the revenue picture continued to deteriorate, the House Appropriations Committee proposed another $29 million cut to higher education, while the Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended another $19 million cut.

Those proposed reductions, if enacted, would not allow the regents to freeze tuition, Robinson said.

And, Robinson added, a state-instituted furlough program could lower higher education below what is required for the state to get federal stimulus funds for the universities.

Bill Hall, who is head of Citizens for Higher Education, urged lawmakers to fight for more funding for the schools, saying the institutions are crucial in helping the Kansas economy rebound.

“If we don’t support our universities, who are the generators of those ideas, we are going to be left behind,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Chamber held a news conference to urge lawmakers to reject any tax increases.

“The bottom line is jobs will be lost if taxes are raised and promises made to reduce Kansas’ high tax burden are not kept,” said Amy Blankenbiller, president and CEO of the chamber.