Topeka The Kansas Legislature faces extra scrutiny over proposed increases in its own spending as state government grapples with financial problems.
Proposals submitted this fall by the Republican-controlled Legislature to Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson’s budget staff would add about 4 percent to the legislative branch’s current budget and boost its spending by an additional 3 percent during fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. And the fiscal 2011 figure would be 28 percent higher than spending in fiscal 2006.
Aides to Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson question whether the proposals undercut some legislators’ insistence that the state must continue to cut spending to keep its budget balanced. Parkinson has said he won’t seek deep cuts in fiscal 2011; he plans to propose raising tobacco taxes and is considering other tax measures.
“There’s been an unwritten agreement that the executive branch of government doesn’t tell the legislative branch how much money it ought to spend, and I’m really not interested in violating that, other than to say that the best way to lead is to lead by example,” Parkinson said during a recent interview.
Republican leaders view the criticism as unfair. Some said the proposals being criticized are like recommendations routinely submitted by executive branch agencies each year to show how additional dollars would be spent, should the money be available. And one House leader questioned whether Parkinson’s staff has room to talk, because the governor’s office budget has ballooned — far more, in percentage terms, than the Legislature’s in recent years — as it has taken over grant programs from other agencies.
And, GOP leaders said, no matter what proposals went to Parkinson’s staff, legislators will make sure their own budget won’t be spared.
“We’ve been very conscious of trying to save where we can,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “I want us to do what we can.”
In their session this past spring, legislators set aside $26.8 million in state revenues for the Legislature, its Research Department, its auditing division and its legal and bill-drafting staff. In July, when Parkinson imposed budget-balancing measures, legislative leaders ordered trimming, too.
Those reductions are still reflected in the Legislature’s revised proposal for its current budget, But other changes would boost the legislative branch’s spending of state tax dollars to $28 million, an increase of nearly $1.2 million. The proposal for fiscal 2011 is nearly $28.9 million.
In fiscal 2006, the legislative branch spent about $22.5 million in state tax dollars. That’s a benchmark for Parkinson’s staff because in fiscal 2006 the state spent $5.14 billion in general tax revenues and expects to have only a little more than that, $5.18 billion, in fiscal 2011.
“The legislative budget has increased significantly over the last four or five years, and I would hope that some the great leaders that we have in the Legislature would step up and impose the same sort of budget constraints that we’ve imposed on everybody else,” Parkinson said.
Fiscal 2009, which ended June 30, provided some evidence that legislators can trim their spending, after setting a budget for themselves. Legislators once planned on a sizable increase in fiscal 2009, but cut it back earlier this year, when other agencies faced reductions. Even then, their actual spending of state tax dollars was $26.3 million, some $2.2 million less than budgeted and slightly less than spending for fiscal 2008. They reduced printing, cut back on post-session study committees and lopped two days off the 90 scheduled for the session.
Watching each other
Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, defended the proposals submitted to Parkinson’s staff. Some increased spending in fiscal 2010 and 2011 would prepare the Legislature for constitutionally mandated redistricting in 2012, and nearly $3.6 million would finish a five-year modernization of computers for writing bills and compiling journals and calendars.
“We have to be careful that we don’t reduce the budget so much that we shoot ourselves in both feet,” Morris said.
Parkinson spokeswoman Beth Martino said other agencies can say the same about cuts they’ve wanted to avoid. For example, the court system is preparing to give employees unpaid days off next year.
“The governor has always aimed for a shared solution to the budget situation,” she said.
But criticism from Parkinson and his aides inevitably led to questions about the governor’s office budget — and a quick analysis by legislative researchers.
Parkinson has included his office in previous rounds of budget cuts, and his office’s fiscal 2011 proposal would reduce its share of state tax dollars by 8 percent, to $7.3 million. But even with that cut, the fiscal 2011 amount would be $5 million greater than it was in fiscal 2006, a 223 percent increase.
But, as Martino pointed out, the increase came after the governor’s office took over the distribution of some grants, primarily for programs fighting domestic violence, not because of core operations.
Still, House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, is skeptical the governor’s office has made its share of sacrifices.
Merrick said earlier this month — in a remark Parkinson aides cited in criticizing the Legislature — that, “There’s not a budget in the world that can’t be reduced more.”
“I still stand by my statement,” Merrick said. “I have no doubt that we will be cut again.”