Topeka Republicans on Monday pushed through committee a 3.4 percent across-the-board cut to the state budget that Democrats said would hurt schools, slash services to vulnerable Kansans, shut down prisons and force local tax increases.
It also may set up a veto showdown between the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.
Republicans said the plan by Sen. Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, who is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was necessary to prop up an ailing state budget that faces a shortfall of $186 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and upwards of a $1 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.
“This is so terrible — devastating to all the programs. But we have to start somewhere,” said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.
But Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, said the plan was “like a sucker punch to the gut.”
The measure, approved 8-5 by the Ways and Means Committee, will go to the full Senate for a vote on Wednesday. Eight Republicans voted for it, while three Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.
The proposal would cut $300 million from the current budget, or about $101 million more than a budget submitted by Sebelius.
The measure would hit higher education particularly hard because it would apply the 3.4 percent reduction on top of an earlier 3 percent cut proposed by Sebelius.
And schools would get hit harder, too. Sebelius’ plan shorted public schools about $18 million, while the committee bill would cut schools approximately $131 million.
Lee said the cut would force school districts, especially poorer ones, to increase local taxes.
“We’re going to be able to stand up and pound our chest that there is not going to be a tax increase, and then under our breath, say not at the state level,” Lee said.
Lawrence school Supt. Randy Weseman said the proposal would require the district to cut about $2 million from its budget.
“With 5 months left in the budget that is going to be a challenge,” Weseman said.
He said he has instituted a modified hiring freeze and tried to reduce expenditures.
But aside from that, he said, he doesn’t know how the district would handle such a cut. “Part of that has to be a discussion with the board. I’ll try to protect the core of our operation, but other than that, it’s all on the table, I guess,” he said.
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said the GOP leadership plan was “a dagger in the heart” of the school lawsuit that led to increase in school funding.
Democrats also said the cut would result in the Kansas Department of Corrections having to shut down by April 1 the Stockton, Norton and Winfield correctional facilities, and terminate all offender treatment and intervention programs.
Sen. Kelly Kultala, D-Kansas City, said she feared vulnerable Kansans would lose their state assistance.
But Ways and Means Chairman Emler said the plan would protect those Kansans as much as possible by directing agencies to “first take their reductions in personnel and operating expenditures prior to implementing any program reductions.”
Emler said the plan prohibited agencies from making reductions all in the elimination of programs. That, he said, would prevent agencies from cutting “heartstring programs.”
Sebelius’ budget director, Duane Goossen, said he didn’t see how services could avoid being cut because the proposal would ax about $45 million in five months from agencies delivering those services.
Other committee members, including some Republicans, complained that more targeted budget reductions were needed, rather than an across-the-board cut.
Democrats on the committee proposed alternative budget adjustments that would have added up to $300 million, but Republican leaders on the committee swept the proposal aside.
Sebelius said her budget proposal given to the Legislature earlier this month was balanced, protected vulnerable Kansans and tried to “keep the promise we made to our schoolchildren.”
She trashed the work of the majority of the Ways and Means Committee, saying they “proposed we break our commitments on school finance, slash essential services for disabled Kansans, and threaten our public safety improvements.”