Kansas lawmakers reject spending-cut trigger, mull tax ideas


By JOHN HANNA, AP
TOPEKA, Kan.

Kansas legislators rejected a measure Friday that would have automatically trimmed about $300 million from the next state budget if the Kansas Supreme Court strikes down a new public school funding law as top Republicans juggled proposals for new spending with possible tax cuts.

The House voted 71-53 to strip an automatic-cuts provision from budget legislation before giving first-round approval to the bill on a voice vote. It adds new spending to $16 billion-plus budgets approved last year for the state’s current fiscal year and the next fiscal year, which begins in July. House members expect to take a final vote Saturday to determine whether the bill goes to the Senate, which expects to debate its own budget legislation next week.

The House’s six-hour budget debate came a day after GOP legislative leaders met with corporate executives to discuss cutting business taxes to head off higher state taxes tied to changes made last year in federal tax laws.

The House Appropriations Committee had added a provision to the budget bill calling for trimming about half of the new spending for the next fiscal year if the Supreme Court rejects the new education funding law. The court ruled in October that the state’s current education funding of more than $4 billion a year is inadequate under the state constitution, and legislators recently enacted a new law that phases in a $534 million increase over five years.

New spending in the bill includes nearly $8 million during the next fiscal year for pay raises in the state’s court system — including a 2.5 percent increase for judges — and $12 million to restore past cuts in the state’s higher education system. Critics of the automatic-cuts provision said it could create chaos for government agencies and programs.

“I think this is absolutely unnecessary,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “In fact, I’ve never heard of this type of budgeting practice.”

But supporters of the provision considered it a prudent response to the uncertainty about whether the Supreme Court will find the new school funding law acceptable.

“The money that we spend is for good causes, but we have to acknowledge we operate with a finite amount of money,” said Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican.

Because the bill touched all parts of the budget, the House’s debate was wide-ranging.

Members voted 66-56 against an amendment from Democratic Rep. Brett Parker of Overland Park to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for up to 155,000 additional needy people, as encouraged by the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010 championed by former President Barack Obama. Critics said it would prove too costly.

The House jabbed at Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican recently held in contempt of court by a federal judge in a voting-rights lawsuit. Members voted 103-16 to add a provision saying no statewide elected official held in contempt could tap state funds to pay fines, court costs or attorney fees. Kobach spokesman Moriah Day called the budget provision “legally flawed.”

The state is benefiting from a stronger economy and lawmakers also raised state income taxes last year by $600 million a year to stabilize the budget. The hike reversed past income tax cuts championed by former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, which were followed by years of budget woes.

But some individuals and businesses face additional state tax increases again this year because the Kansas tax code is tied to federal tax laws. Top Republicans are pushing to return any unplanned “windfall” — even though doing so could hinder the state’s ability to sustain extra spending on schools or government programs.

Republican leaders met Thursday with corporate executives and representatives of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce to discuss relief for businesses.

“I’m trying to digest what I heard and come up with a plan going forward,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican.

___

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

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