Kansas legislators reject quick spending cuts as budget fix

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators showed Thursday that they have little appetite for cutting spending immediately to get the state through June without a budget deficit until it can collect new revenue from higher taxes.

The state Senate voted 33-7 against a proposal from its top leader, President Susan Wagle, to reduce spending by $105 million before June 30. Wagle, a Wichita Republican, offered the proposal as an amendment to a bill that would tide the state over until the July 1 start of its next fiscal year by authorizing internal government borrowing and temporarily shorting contributions to public employees' pensions.

Senators also overwhelmingly rejected two proposals for smaller, across-the-board cuts from conservative Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha.

The Senate then approved the bill Thursday night, 27-13. The House passed its own version last month, also authorizing borrowing and shorting pension contributions. The final version will be drafted by House and Senate negotiators next week. But with both chambers avoiding spending cuts, the idea is not likely to resurface.

The projected shortfall for June 30 is $281 million, and the state is facing total budget gaps totaling more than $1 billion through June 2019. There's bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature for rolling back past income tax cuts championed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, but Wagle told fellow senators that any tax increases could be smaller if lawmakers reduced spending.

"When most families have a shortfall, they sit down and look at their budgets and they say, 'Here is where I have to trim my budget to make ends meet,'" Wagle said. "That's the first thing they do."

Wagle's proposal would have cut the state's aid to public schools by $65 million but required them to protect spending on classroom instruction. Other senators noted that the Kansas Supreme Court ruled two months ago that the state isn't spending enough on its public schools for legislators to fulfill their constitutional duty to finance a suitable education for every child.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat who also serves on the local school board, said his district would have had to trim spending with only 35 days left in its school year.

"It's really a poke in the eye," he said after the debate.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging. Many voters in last year's elections concluded that the tax-cutting was a bust as an economic stimulus, ousted two dozen of the governor's allies from the Legislature, and gave Democrats and GOP moderates more power.

Bipartisan majorities in both chambers last month approved a bill that would have increased income taxes to raise more than $1 billion over two years, starting in July. Brownback vetoed the measure; he favors raising cigarette and liquor taxes and annual business filing fees.

Wagle's proposal to cut spending inspired bipartisan opposition. Some lawmakers say agencies couldn't cope with even a small cut so close to the June 30 end of the state's budget year.

Her proposed cut amounted to 2 percent of the state tax dollars allocated to all government agencies and programs, with exceptions for payments on bonds and spending on social service entitlement programs. Pyle offered cuts of 1 percent and then 0.5 percent.

Even some conservative Republicans said they could not support Wagle's proposal because of the timing of the cuts. Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, dismissed it as "political theater."

"You have to put something in front of us that has a practical pathway to a conclusion," Masterson said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna


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