Kansans understand that state lawmakers face a difficult budget challenge this year.
Most Kansans also would applaud efforts to place a lid on spending in the state budget.
What many Kansans would object to, however, is bypassing the democratic legislative process to achieve those goals.
Rules passed by the Kansas House earlier this month give the House Appropriations Committee exclusive power for setting the total of the body’s proposed state budget. That means that as few as 12 House members — a majority of the 23-member Appropriations Committee — will set a budget limit that can’t be exceeded even by a majority vote of the entire House.
The rule change is being portrayed as a “pay-go” provision, which would require any spending increase to be offset by a spending cut elsewhere in the budget. On some level, that seems like a reasonable approach, but, in practice, it hamstrings any effort to make significant changes in the budget after it has come out of the Appropriations Committee. That committee always has been one of the most powerful in the House; now it’s power is almost absolute.
An example of how the provision will affect budget consideration played out last week when the House approved a bill to cut state spending for the current fiscal year. Among other things, the bill approved 7.5 percent salary cuts for state employees making more than $100,000 per year. The bill also cut state spending on special education to a level that some legislators contend will cost Kansas between $16 million and $25 million in federal education funds in future years.
Democrats proposed several unsuccessful amendments to restore some of that funding. Trying to accommodate the pay-go provision, Rep. Jerry Henry, Cummings, proposed raising funds by forcing the sale of excess state property. Members of the House Rules Committee wouldn’t allow that move because the budget had no line item for selling property and the funding was uncertain.
This situation illustrates just how difficult it will be to make any significant changes to the House budget proposal after it leaves Appropriations Committee. Giving the budget-writing committee so much control over the budget stifles the kind of give-and-take that should be part of the legislative process.
The rules also may widen the disparities between budget proposals passed in the House and in the Senate. Many constituents already are looking to the Senate to be a more moderate voice on some budget issues. If the House Appropriations Committee draws severe or unreasonable lines on state spending, negotiations with the Senate will become more difficult.
When Kansas voters elect their state legislators, they expect those people to be able to represent their constituents in all important matters facing the Legislature. Unfortunately, the new Kansas House rules severely limit the ability of the vast majority of House members to have any influence over the Legislature’s most important business: the state budget.
It will be interesting to see how the new rules play out during the session, but it’s hard to see them having a positive impact on the legislative budget process.