Editorial: Budget pointless without tax bill

The Senate’s budget bill may look appealing, but it won’t work unless legislators succeed on tax reform.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee has drafted and endorsed a two-year budget bill that, on the surface, would seem appealing to many Kansans.

After all, the bill would make full payments into the state pension system as scheduled, provide a 2-percent across-the-board pay raise for state employees and restore some of the cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback ordered last year for the University of Kansas and Kansas State University.

But the bill, which still needs House and Senate approval, will be rendered meaningless if legislators can’t also approve a tax bill that they can get past Brownback’s desk.

The budget bill, approved on an 11-2 vote in the Ways and Means Committee, will cost $874 million more in tax revenue over the next two years than the state projects it will have under current tax policies. In reality, lawmakers will need to find more than $1 billion in new tax revenue to ensure there is enough of a cushion at the end of each year.

The budget bill does not provide guidance on taxes to pay for the proposed spending.

It would be nice to believe the Legislature is in position to restore at least some of the funding KU has lost in recent state budget cuts. When Brownback signed the current year’s budget into law at the end of the 2016 session, he ordered a 4-percent cut in state aid to state public colleges and universities. But KU and K-State took proportionately larger cuts than the smaller universities, under the assumption that they receive more money than the other schools through sources such as student tuition and federal research grants.

The proposed Senate bill would restore enough funds to KU and Kansas State to bring the size of their cuts down to 4 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and 3 percent for the next fiscal year after that. For KU, that amounts to $1.9 million in the first year and $2.9 million the second year.

The bill also rejects other Brownback budget proposals, including freezing payments into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and selling off the state’s interest in future tobacco settlement money. Instead, the plan calls for fully funding pension payments and using tobacco settlement funds to pay for early childhood education and children’s health programs.

The proposed budget addresses significant issues that have plagued the state for years, including employee pay raises, higher education funding and KPERS obligations. But without a corresponding tax plan, the budget approved this week is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Earlier this session, legislators came within a handful of Senate votes of approving a veto-proof tax bill that would have paid for the current budget proposal. When that bill went down, legislators said not to worry, that there were other plans waiting in the wings.

Now, more than a month has passed and there’s hardly been a peep out of the Legislature about revising the tax bill. Let’s hope lawmakers revisit tax reform soon. After all, there’s a lot riding on it, including just about everything in the current budget bill.