TOPEKA, Kan. — With Republican Gov. Sam Brownback for now refusing to say how he’ll keep Kansas’ budget balanced, some GOP lawmakers are promising more aggressive fiscal oversight and even want to challenge the governor’s longstanding control over annual spending blueprints.
Senate President Susan Wagle outlined a proposal this week to give lawmakers a bigger role in budgeting as internal documents from state agencies showed how they might reduce spending. Some of the potential cuts would eliminate programs that keep state prisons from becoming crowded or even hinder efforts to collect taxes.
Kansas has struggled to hit revenue targets and balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an attempt to stimulate the state economy. Monthly tax collections have fallen short of expectations 71 percent of the time since.
The state faces at least a small shortfall in its current budget and potential spending cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2017. Wagle’s proposal is part of a broader platform to reassure voters upset with Brownback and state government that GOP state senators and Senate candidates are committed to balancing the budget — something the state constitution requires.
“It will be a long-term fix,” Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said during a Statehouse news conference. “We will be much more active.”
The governor generally is the most influential player in annual budget debates. His proposed spending blueprints provide the backbone and, most often, the bulk of the flesh for what emerges from legislative debates. His annual proposals run to hundreds of pages; lawmakers are in session between 70 and 115 days and largely focus on piecemeal changes.
Wagle is seeking to alter the balance of power. She told reporters that GOP senators and Senate candidates want lawmakers to draft their own full spending blueprint each year to rival the governor’s.
She also said a small group of legislators needs to meet regularly throughout the year to monitor budget developments and press agencies on potential efficiencies. Tax collections in September fell short of expectations by $45 million, and the projected shortfall in the budget is now roughly $60 million and is likely to grow.
“Is the budget working?” Wagle said. “It would be a good time now to have a budget meeting, after the shortfall was announced for September.”
Brownback and his aides have said he’ll roll out his proposals for keeping the budget balanced in January, as he proposes spending blueprints for each of the next two fiscal years. Lawmakers in both parties have argued that he should make cuts in the current budget immediately as a stopgap before their larger debates next year about future spending.
Budget Director Shawn Sullivan this summer asked agencies to outline proposals for cutting their spending by 5 percent.
The Department of Corrections said such a cut would do “irreparable damage” to the prison system and would “compromise public safety.” It said it would be forced to eliminate substance abuse and community corrections programs that keep low-risk offenders out of prison.
The Department of Revenue said it would hold 15 collections and audit staff positions open — reducing tax collections by nearly $13 million a year. The Department of Education said 600 fewer poor children would receive early childhood education services.
Last month, before many of the proposals became public, Sullivan declared that the governor would not propose across-the-board spending cuts. He said this week that the measures outlined in agencies’ documents were the kind of harmful reductions that prompted his statement.
“Any cut proposed that would be a cut to services will not be proposed by the governor,” Sullivan said during a brief interview.
But lawmakers don’t believe the state can avoid spending cuts. Even if they were to increase taxes next year, there would be a lag in time before funds flow into the state.
“It’s safe and fair to say, yes, that there will be some agencies that take significant (spending) cuts,” said Rep. Mark Hutton, another Wichita Republican.
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