TOPEKA A top Republican legislator in Kansas promised Wednesday to push to cut spending to help fix the state's serious budget problems, while a state agency warned that lawmakers are on track to harm services designed to keep disabled people in their homes.
State Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she will propose an across-the-board cut in spending when her chamber takes up a plan Thursday for closing a projected $281 million shortfall in the annual budget that runs through June. She wasn't specific about the figure, and her idea immediately encountered bipartisan opposition.
The bill before the Senate relies on internal government borrowing and a temporary shorting of state contributions to public employee pensions to tide the state over until it could start to collect new revenue from higher taxes. Lawmakers so far are focused on rolling back past income tax cuts championed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.
Wagle said she's approaching the state's budget problems like a family would if it had financial problems: "The first thing you do is cut out unnecessary expenditures."
The measure also would remove $42 million from the current budget for in-home services for the disabled, such as help with chores and personal care such as bathing.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee stripped out the money after saying it needed more details about how the funds would be spent. But the state Department for Aging and Disability Services said it would be forced to put disabled people seeking services on waiting lists and cut rates paid to service providers by 56 percent through June if the funds aren't restored.
"This would be devastating to our providers," said department spokeswoman Angela de Rocha.
But Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn said dollars will be restored after the committee receives more information from the agency.
"We are going through meetings and looking at numbers," said McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican.
The state is facing projected shortfalls totaling more than $1 billion through June 2019, including the gap in the current budget.
Wagle has been willing to support increasing income taxes — including rolling back some of Brownback's key policies — but she's also argued that spending cuts are necessary.
She and other GOP leaders floated a plan last month to cut aid to public schools and higher education spending in the current budget by $154 million. But they dropped it when support for the idea collapsed, and earlier this month the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state isn't spending enough money on its public schools.
Legislators in both parties said they don't support cuts in the current budget because of the potential damage to schools and services. They also questioned whether agencies could impose them so close to the June 30 end of the budget year.
Even conservative Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, was skeptical of Wagle's proposal.
"At this point, I'm just convinced it's political theater," Masterson said.
He said he and other Republicans are increasingly interested in having Kansas move to a "flat" personal income tax with a single rate for all filers.
In slashing income tax rates in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging, GOP lawmakers also moved the state to two tax brackets from three and granted an exemption to more than 330,000 farmers and business owners. Brownback still defends those policies.
Masterson said he might support ending the exemption — an idea that has broad, bipartisan support — if the state went to a single tax bracket.
Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said the governor "is certainly open to considering legislation that makes the Kansas tax code fairer, flatter, and simpler, while also keeping the tax burden as low as possible for Kansas families and businesses."