Topeka Kansas lawmakers were told this week that Gov. Sam Brownback's plan to fill a $279 million budget gap in the current fiscal year only pushes the state's budget problem down the road, making next year's funding gap even worse.
That's because most of what Brownback proposed does not involve actual cuts in state spending, but instead transfers $201 million from other funds into the state general fund.
But in an interview with the Journal-World this week, Brownback defended his plan and said the Legislature needs to be involved in deciding where to make actual spending cuts.
"I want these things to come through the legislative branch because that's constitutionally the way they're supposed to," Brownback said. "We're in the situation we are, and I dealt with it, but I wanted to do it in as minimally intrusive of a fashion as possible."
Brownback spoke during his annual round of end-of-year interviews that governors traditionally grant the Statehouse press corps.
The budget gaps are the result of the latest consensus revenue estimates released last month. Largely because of the sweeping tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013, the Legislature's non-partisan Research Department said there would be a $279 million shortfall in the current fiscal year that would need to be filled with either spending cuts or revenue growth.
After that, researchers said there would be another $436 million budget gap in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
But in the budget plan Brownback announced this week, he only identified $78.5 million in actual cuts, some of which still have to be approved by the Legislature. The largest of those, $40.7 million, would be a reduction in the state's contributions into the financially troubled Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
State Treasurer Ron Estes, a Republican who servers on the KPERS Board of Trustees, criticized the reduction in pension payments, saying the pension fund currently has a $9.8 billion unfunded liability — the difference between its assets and the obligations it has already incurred for current retirees and active employees.
“While I understand the need to re-balance the budget in light of unexpected shortfalls, the decision to delay state contributions to our underfunded pension system is disappointing,” Estes said.
And Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, also said she was disappointed because much of what Brownback proposed still has to be approved by the Legislature.
“I would have preferred to see the burden spread evenly throughout the state. That would certainly be a more fair approach than picking winners or losers and asking the legislature to fill the gap," Wagle said.
But Brownback said he thought it was his duty to fund as much as possible of the budget that the Legislature passed. And he said if the Legislature wants to reduce the size of state government, it's up to them to pass a budget that does that.
"That's the way these things are supposed to happen," he said.
When lawmakers convene Jan. 12, Brownback said, he will outline an "aggressive" two-year budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. But he offered few details about what that proposal will look like.
"We will deal with our situation. We will make proposals to deal with where we are and what we need to do as a state to move forward to address our budget issues," he said.