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Budget Cuts Still On Table As Kansas House Denies Another Tax Plan

After two days of legislative maneuvering and more than four hours of members sitting in their chairs watching a voting board, the House denied another tax plan Thursday morning.

The possibility of across-the-board budget cuts to state entities — including hospitals for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities — became more tangible as factions within the House rejected a sales tax-heavy plan to close the last half of an $800 million structural deficit.

The initial vote on the bill around 10 p.m. Wednesday had it failing 44-71, but House leaders kept the voting rolls open for hours as they and the governor called members at their seats and tried to flip enough votes of approval to get to 63.

Leadership allowed House members to go home at midnight but had them back in the chamber at 8 a.m. for a couple more hours.

They never got higher than the initial 44 “yes” votes, though, despite pleas from leadership to raise taxes and balance the budget as required by the state constitution.

“I’m voting to preserve the constitutional integrity of our state, the financial integrity of our state,” said Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast, a Republican from Emporia, in explaining her “yes” vote.

Other Republicans joined her in urging their colleagues to make a vote that could finally end the historically long session.

Rep. Scott Schwab, a Republican from Olathe, apologized to the chamber for being arrogant in the past and alluded to those who blame the state’s fiscal problems on the 2012 income tax cuts.

“I’ll admit it, it was my fault,” Schwab said. “I was part of the problem. But I want to be part of the solution.”

'The time has come'

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Republican from Coldwater, tried to bring together the many factions of the House Republican supermajority.

He urged those holding out for a large-scale reversal of the 2012 bill or for budget cuts and no new taxes to give up on those hard-line positions.

“Some of you want more cuts; some of you want a total repeal of the 2012 tax plan,” Hoffman said. “Neither is going to happen at this hour. The time has come. It may not be pretty and it may not look like all the previsions that we want, but it’s time to fund the budget and go home.”

But those factions remained entrenched Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, a Republican from Mulvane and one of the chamber’s most tax-resistant members, suggested the House should return to the spending levels of 2012 rather than revising the tax cuts passed that year.

“If we just went back to the spending policies of 2012, the budget would be balanced,” DeGraaf said. “And the sky was not falling in 2012.”

But budget committee leaders have said the state’s biggest cost drivers have changed since 2012. The numbers of at-risk students in public education — for whom districts automatically receive larger appropriations — have increased. The Medicaid rolls have gone up. And legislators agreed to plow more money into the state pension system because years of underfunding had left it dangerously underfunded.

Leaders of both chambers and the governor have said the budget already includes all cuts that can be made without harm.

But a bill to raise the necessary taxes remains elusive, as DeGraaf said during the one minute he was allowed to explain his “no” vote on the House floor.

“It’s obvious that this body is not willing to raise taxes,” he said before his microphone was silenced, his minute up.

Shortly after that, the rule allowing leadership to keep the vote open was challenged and the rules committee determined that the authority to keep the standoff going lay solely with House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell.

Merrick quickly brought the exercise to an end, causing a mass exodus of votes away from the tax increase plan. By the time the vote was final, the number of “yes” tallies had dropped to 21.

Frustrating situation

There are only a few paths forward from here.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican from Hutchinson, said the two chambers may try to get together in a conference committee and formulate another tax offering.

But Bruce admitted to being frustrated with the situation. Sen. Les Donovan, a Republican from Wichita who chairs the Senate’s tax committee, said he saw limited usefulness in having another conference committee if the House keeps shooting down its products.

“Unless we see some movement from them, I can’t see any reason to go back,” Donovan said. “I don’t know what we could put in there, even if we could get approval over here. … I don’t know that we could pass something here that would be enticing for them to change their votes.”

That leaves the prospect of across-the-board budget cuts still firmly in place as the Legislature moves closer to the fiscal year that starts July 1 without a budget.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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