Topeka — Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Monday promised a no-new-taxes budget and cuts to most state agencies but urged lawmakers to preserve essential services even during hard economic times.
“This is not the time to take our eye off the future,” Sebelius said in her State of the State address as the 2009 legislative session got under way.
“The promise of our future must not be forgotten in the problems of the moment,” she said.
Sebelius added, “Our state’s motto is as true today as it was in 1861. We will overcome our difficulties; we will reach the stars yet again. There will be a better day.”
GOP, Democrats clash
Republicans — some more than others — criticized Sebelius’ speech, saying its lack of details failed to advance the debate over a budget crisis that has been growing for months.
“I did expect more insight in the budget than what we got tonight,” House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said after Sebelius addressed a joint session of the House and Senate.
Because of shrinking tax revenues, lawmakers face an immediate deficit of $186 million, which could skyrocket to $1 billion by the start of the next fiscal year July 1.
Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kris Kobach said of Sebelius, “She seems incapable of even suggesting any of the tough decisions that must be made in the months ahead.”
But Democrats rallied to Sebelius’ defense.
State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, argued that because of the budget problems, Sebelius properly talked about protecting services and focusing on future investments.
“So, what she has reminded us of are the opportunities on the table that we need to be working on,” Francisco said.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, agreed, saying, “Considering the financial challenges that we have, I think the governor is being very ambitious, and putting forth the notion that we need to keep investing in the future.”
Caution urged on cuts
Sebelius said her spending plans, which will be unveiled today, would “make significant reductions in most agencies,” eliminate programs, close facilities and freeze hiring of state employees.
Sebelius also, however, urged legislators to be careful when cutting the budget to protect investments that will pay off in the future.
“In an economic downturn, decisions can have dire consequences and a lifetime impact on future generations,” Sebelius said. “No student can afford to ‘miss’ a few years of quality education. No Kansan can be denied lifesaving care while waiting for the economy to improve.”
She said a number of initiatives on the horizon have the potential to spur mammoth economic growth in Kansas.
She cited the state’s pursuit of National Cancer Institute designation as one of those. And, she said, her recently released energy plan could bring thousands of “green” jobs to the state through development of wind energy.
Schools, welfare and coal
Republicans, who hold significant majorities in the Legislature, also promised not to increase taxes, and said social service and public school funding cuts may be needed to bridge the budget shortfall.
“Medicaid and K-12 represent the greatest costs to the state budget, so both must be considered ‘on the table’ in any discussion to balance the budgets for FY 2009 and 2010,” Senate President Stephen Morris, R-Hugoton, said in an address that followed Sebelius’.
Earlier in the day, about two dozen people demonstrated outside the Capitol against a freeze in a program to help low-income Kansans with disabilities.
“In terms of people’s lives, it’s devastating,” Mike Oxford of Lawrence, an organizer with Kansas ADAPT, said of the decision by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to halt accepting new clients for the Medicaid program that provides home- and community-based services for Kansans with physical disabilities.
On energy policy, Morris made it clear that Sebelius and Republicans would wrestle again over the two proposed coal-burning power plants in southwestern Kansas.
Morris wants the plants as part of a comprehensive energy plan, saying, “I am absolutely convinced we will need every single megawatt of power from every conceivable energy source to feed the ever-increasing energy appetite of our state and the nation.”
Sebelius has opposed the plants, saying the project’s annual emission of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide would produce health and environmental damage, while most of the power would be exported out of state.
In the current political and economic situation, she said, the plants are unfeasible.
“Kansas is already one of the nation’s worst offenders in per capita carbon emissions, which makes us vulnerable to the costs and penalties of imminent federal regulation,” she said.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he agrees with Sebelius on promoting wind energy, but he said coal-fired energy has to be part of the mix. “I keep saying the issues are affordable and reliable energy,” Sloan said.