Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Budget: Legislature Has Passed Bills on Education as Well as Social Policy

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Budget: Legislature Has Passed Bills on Education as Well as Social Policy

Article excerpt

For several minutes late Thursday afternoon, the Senate stood at a standstill.

To pass the time, senators mingled on the floor with each other, spoke to reporters and visited with staff. The pause came after a flurry of votes in the Legislature as leadership worked to ensure the chamber's affairs were in order before adjourning.

Now that the Legislature has adjourned, a much longer three-week pause has begun.

The main problem before lawmakers -- formulating a budget that takes into account a $600 million revenue shortfall -- remains, even as both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge a great deal else has been accomplished while differing on whether all that activity does any good.

The budget

Lawmakers will return to work April 29 without having passed a budget. The state faces a $600 million shortfall during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, that the budget must account for.

Negotiators from the House and Senate began meeting in earnest in the past week in an effort to reach a deal. But the House hasn't passed a budget, meaning representatives who don't sit on the House Appropriations Committee or serve as one of the negotiators on the conference committee have had little chance to provide formal input in the budget process.

That is a point of frustration for some lawmakers.

"As a legislator in the Kansas House, I haven't seen any position, House position. My understanding is the only position in appropriations in play is the position of the (conference) committee," said House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, believes the process is working well. He anticipates the Legislature having to work a couple of weeks after returning before wrapping up.

"My goal is to balance speed with quality. We're certainly not going to rush to a budget and tax package but we want to do it as efficiently as we possibly can. So I would look for us to be here a couple weeks to make sure that happens," King said.

Though the House hasn't passed a budget, the Senate has passed its own version. Its version depends on a mix of cuts and more than $200 million in new revenue driven by proposed increases in tobacco and liquor taxes. Under the proposal, per-pack cigarette taxes would rise from 79 cents to $2.29.

At that rate, Kansas would have the 11th highest cigarette tax in the country. The state currently ranks 35th.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who first called for the increases in his January budget proposal, has defended putting forward the increases, though he admits he isn't excited by them.

The governor has stood firmly by his stated goal of eliminating the income tax, however, even as his budget calls for future income tax rate cuts to be tied to growing state revenue.

"I think over time I would like to see us move toward a consumption basket of taxes. Not the property tax -- leave that alone -- but move more toward consumption set of taxes to overall fund the government," Brownback said.

Education

Although the budget debate will continue, as some lawmakers see it, a large chunk of the puzzle was solved when the Legislature threw out the school funding formula last month.

School funding accounts for about half of the state's expenditures. In March, the Legislature passed a bill scrapping the formula that has been used to divvy up those dollars since the early '90s and instituting a block grant system instead.

The block grant system will last two years before it sunsets, with the idea that lawmakers will create a new, permanent funding formula by then.

Supporters and opponents of the block grant system and the overall effort to rework the formula are sharply split.

"I think this was a major accomplishment of the Legislature to get away from the flawed formula that has produced a lot of issues and problems," Brownback said. …

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