Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has rolled out his first roadmap for fixing state finances in the current year, but it’s clear the two chambers of the Legislature are taking divergent paths.
Three days after the Republican was sworn into office, his staff presented legislators with a bill that would freeze state spending through June 30. If followed to the letter, the measure would net Kansas some $35 million to begin the next fiscal year.
“The savings are going to be needed for 2012,” Brownback said. “That’s what gets us to an ending balance. That’s an absolute minimum.
“I hope people look at the total package. There really aren’t a lot of options.”
Last week, House and Senate budget committees took their first crack at Brownback’s bill with different priorities in mind.
House members were in the mood to cut, taking the ending balance to more than $45 million. Senators went the other direction, adding money for education and disaster relief and pushing the 2011 ending balance closer to zero.
“The House is trying to do the governor one better in trying to bring spending in line with revenues. The Senate is spending the cushion,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal.
Getting to zero is a must. Kansas can’t operate in a deficit, though in past years governors have pushed spending into the next fiscal year to balance the books. However, 2012 doesn’t get any easier with a projected $550 million shortfall between anticipated revenue collections and spending obligations.
The House Appropriations Committee, dominated by fiscally conservative Republicans, is proposing a 7.5 percent reduction in salary and wages for all state employees, including elected officials, judges and university presidents.
Doing so would slash more than $16 million in payrolls. The Board of Regents would apply its savings to deferred maintenance projects, such as leaky roofs and outdated infrastructure.
Rep. Pete DeGraaf, a Mulvane Republican, said his intent was to trim agency spending and not specifically target employees. Agencies could find the savings by delaying or cancelling purchases, not filling vacant positions or reducing other planned spending.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal said Friday the committee would be going back to revisit the bill this week to clean up the language to reflect DeGraaf’s intent, not the interpretation.
O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, said agencies will have as much control as possible to decide where to find the savings. But salaries, including those of legislators and Brownback, could be part of the mix.
“I’m not into micromanaging that,” O’Neal said. “The top tier ought to have skin in the game, and that includes me.”
However, Democrats and lobbyists for the state employee union took the cut as a slap at public workers.
“If we are going to make Kansas a better place to live and work, we should support the people who work for us,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “The Senate took a much more reasoned approach to this.”
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, says the panel isn’t finished with its work despite adding money to the bill last week. She anticipated changes would be made before it was sent to the full Senate for debate.
“We’re going to make sure we make the cuts we need to make to balance the 2011 budget,” McGinn said.
Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said during the committee process that it was important for each chamber to state its preferences on spending so it would have positions to defend or alter during negotiations. That suggests there would be room for some give and take.
Legislators have missed the deadline Brownback set for getting the rescission bill to his desk. Brownback had wanted to sign the bill by the end of January.
“I think the governor was a bit unrealistic when he thought we could have it to him,” said Rep. Bill Feuerborn, a Garnett Democrat who serves on the House budget committee.
Feuerborn described the difference between the House and Senate bills as “astronomical,” a chasm opened by the Senate’s decision to restore funding for public schools.
Senators want to include money to account for increases in enrollment and the number of students served by free- and reduced-priced lunches. The biggest increase was $16.7 million in special education funding to prevent the possibility of a loss of federal dollars. Feuerborn said that difference will be among the hardest for negotiators to reconcile when the House and Senate try to assemble the final cuts.
“I think we have to have some savings,” he said. “The biggest concern that I have is we might save some money this year, but it may cost us tens of millions in the future.”
The clock is ticking and every day that passes is one fewer that legislators have to trim state spending. If both bills clear their chambers this week, it is conceivable that Brownback can sign a compromise bill and implement the cuts by Valentine’s Day.
“They’re working,” Brownback said.