Kansas legislators are preparing to close a deficit largely with budget juggling, and a growing number see broad problems with how the state manages its finances



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TOPEKA, Kansas — As Kansas legislators prepare to close a deficit largely with budget juggling, a growing number are seeing broad problems with how the state has managed its finances under Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The conservative governor's critics blame his aggressive tax-cutting policies for crises across state government that include inadequate employee pay at state prisons and short staffing in state mental hospitals. Lawmakers in both parties also argued in recent debates that Brownback's proposed solutions would simply paper over the state's budget gap rather than close it.

Even some of Brownback's allies acknowledged they'll be largely doing a quick patch with legislation to eliminate a projected deficit of nearly $200 million in the state's $16.1 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. They're preparing to consider dozens of recommendations for making government more efficient from a consulting firm that top lawmakers hired last year.

"I agree we're upside-down, and we need some long-term corrections," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

Some legislators also saw a quick budget patch as foolish after the Kansas Supreme Court struck down a school funding law enacted last year.

The court said the law violated the state constitution by shorting poor school districts on their aid. The cost of complying could exceed $100 million, and the budget legislation being considered was drafted before the ruling and doesn't address the issue.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Brownback successfully pushed Republican legislators to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to stimulate the economy. The state cut its top rate by 29 percent and exempted more than 330,000 farmers and business owners from having to pay income taxes.

Brownback contends that growth from the tax cuts is cushioning Kansas from slumps in agriculture and energy production. He and his allies also argue that his latest recommendations would balance the budget without touching aid to public schools or other important programs, such as social services.

"While some continue to cry 'the sky is falling,' the Governor and the members of the Legislature that have chosen to actually participate in the governing of the state have been hard at work trying resolve the very issues their critics claims to be concerned about," Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said by email.

Brownback's recommendations for the next fiscal year would divert funds set aside for highway projects, book unanticipated savings in various programs and count on raising $25 million from selling off an economic development agency's assets.

Those ideas were included in separate budget-balancing bills approved in recent days by the House and Senate. They're likely to underpin the final plan negotiated next week by three senators and three House members.

Allies argue that Brownback is being criticized for the kind of budget maneuvers that other governors have used in the past to cover shortfalls, such as diverting highway funding to general government programs.

"We're in a flat economy," Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said during his chamber's debate.

But Democrats and Republican moderates contend that under Brownback, the budget maneuvering has grown worse.

For example, following diversions of highway dollars to other programs, the state Department of Transportation issued $400 million in bonds in December — and structured them to pay only interest for the first 10 years. Critics compared the move to financing government with a credit card.

"This house of cards cannot go on for very much longer," Rep. Don Schroeder, a Hesston Republican, said during his chamber's most recent budget debate.

The final budget-balancing plan is likely to leave the state with only a thin cushion of projected cash reserves, less than $10 million at the end of June and less than $90 million at the end of June 2017. And those figures assume the state hits its revenue projections from now on, when tax collections have fallen short of expectations for 18 of the past 25 months.

Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said budget plan will be heavy on "phantom stuff."

"It's balanced on paper only," she said.


Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org


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