Topeka House Republicans ran over Democrats on Friday, giving preliminary approval of rules that will allow secret caucus meetings and a so-called “pay-go” provision that will require any spending increase to be offset by a cut elsewhere in the budget.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said the budget provision was needed to control spending.
“This rule is a key first step in getting the fiscal house of Kansas back in order,” he said.
But Democrats said the proposal puts too much power in the hands of House Appropriations Committee members because the House couldn’t exceed the bottom line of any budget produced by a majority on the 23-member committee, or 12 members.
“We are taking away the power of the constituents that we represent,” said House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence. “What’s going on today is a power grab. This is a very slippery slope.”
Democrats also argued pay-go was unnecessary to curb spending because the Legislature can’t deficit spend, and must balance the state budget.
The measure won first-round approval 74-34. All 74 votes for the new rules were cast by Republicans. Of the 34 votes opposed, 31 were Democrats and three were Republicans. Seventeen members were absent. A final vote is set for Monday.
Under House Resolution 6004, any amendment on the House floor to an appropriations bill that increases spending would require a corresponding cut elsewhere. The measure would effectively cap spending to the amount decided by the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Republicans said the rule would provide the discipline needed to cut the budget as legislators face an estimated $550 million revenue shortfall.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, who was not present in the Legislature on Friday, released a statement after the rules were approved, saying, “By passing budget reform at the state level, the House is taking the first step towards the fundamental changes needed to ensure the long-term fiscal health of our state.”
But Democrats argued that the rules would make it difficult to allocate funds during emergencies, such as snowstorms or tornadoes, or take advantage of unforeseen federal dollars.
Rep. Stan Frownfelter, D-Kansas City, tried to add an amendment that would have required any tax cut be offset by a tax increase or budget cut elsewhere to ensure the move was revenue neutral. But Republicans defeated that proposal.
The new rules also allow the House majority leader and House minority leader to close their respective caucus.
“I have a problem denying the press and denying the public access,” said Rep. Sean Gatewood, D-Topeka.
Republicans argued much of the business of the Legislature is done behind closed doors, but legislators’ votes are public.
Rep. Clark Shultz, R-Lindsborg, who is chair of the House Rules Committee, said he hopes the new rule to allow closed caucus meetings is rarely used.
“I think we need to have our meetings open,” he said.
Davis said he would keep the House Democratic caucus open to the press and public.
The new rules will probably be in place when the House takes up an appropriations bill on Tuesday. The Senate doesn’t have a “pay-go” provision.