May 4, 2010
Written by Tim Carpenter
Topeka Capital Journal

Stark division in the House on formulation of a balanced budget became crystal clear Tuesday night when a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats soundly defeated a $13 billion plan offered by the conservative GOP leadership.

The budget inserted into Senate Bill 572 by the House Appropriations Committee failed by a vote of 45-74 after hit by a freight train of opposition by legislators expressing support for an as-yet drafted alternative that would raise statewide taxes and preserve funding to schools, public safety and social services.

"The budget put forward by House Republican leadership was short-sighted and irresponsible," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. "No number of amendments could have fixed the lopsided proposal we saw today. We can do better."

The bipartisan chorus reflected frustration with grinding debate on a piece of legislation with no chance of becoming law. Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson already declared his intent to veto a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 that cut far deeper into public services and imposed a 5 percent pay reduction on state employees. The governor said state government had already slashed $1 billion during the past two years and needed infusion of new revenue to make it over the hump.

So far, the precise remedy for a shortfall of about $500 million remains beyond anyone's grasp at the Statehouse.

"I don't have 63 votes, and I don't think anybody else does," said Rep. Don Hill, a moderate House Republican from Emporia.

Conservative Republicans, including House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, and House Appropriations Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, urged the chamber adopt a budget void of a tax hike. They argued higher sales, income, tobacco and business taxes would weaken the state's economic recovery. Their political sentiment and leadership muscle didn't repel the onslaught.

"Many people in this body want a tax increase no matter what happens," Yoder said. "It's not necessary."

House floor debate on the bill ping-ponged from amendments that called for selling millions of dollars in state property, cut foster care spending to pay for services to disabled Kansans and redefined which organizations were eligible for federal grants to provide family counseling. Most amendments offered during the daylong debate couldn't muster enough votes to be part of the bill ultimately rejected by a wide margin.

"A state budget is a reflection of the state's values," said Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita. "I'm afraid this one falls way short. This is not sustainable."

Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy, said House members wasted hours dabbling in fringe issues that didn't move the Legislature closer to a resolution.

"We're not really debating taxes," Otto said. "We're not really debating the budget. We're just sitting here drawing a paycheck. I'm ashamed."

The Senate is preparing for a floor debate Wednesday on a different proposal that would generate more than $350 million in new revenue. It includes a 1 cent increase in the state sales tax rate, pushing it up to 6.3 cents per dollar.

Anticipating action in the Senate, 13 members of the Kansas Chamber's executive committee sent a letter to members of the House and Senate objecting "to all new tax increases or the elimination of previous gains."

The organization, backed by heavyweights Koch Industries, AT&T, Cox Communications, Cessna and Cargill, plans to lobby with a simple message, "We cannot tax our way to economic recovery."

Rep. Bill Feuerborn, a Garnett Democrat on the House budget committee, said the state's precarious financial situation sent the House GOP leadership's plan to the scrap heap.

"It was simply not fixable," he said. "It's time now to focus on protecting critical services."

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