Budget meltdown could cause furloughs in courts
Topeka — The Kansas Legislature imploded Friday before adjourning for its annual break, leaving a long list of politically explosive issues to be dealt with when the wrap-up session starts April 25.
An apparent agreement between the House and Senate on the supplemental budget unraveled at the last minute in an argument over school funding.
Without the appropriations bill that covered numerous items, the Kansas Supreme Court may have to close courts and furlough employees without pay, officials said.
State Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss sent a letter to legislators last month that warned if the judicial system didn't get a needed $1.4 million supplemental appropriation, it would have to close courts for up to five days, furloughing 1,500 employees and 250 judges.
"If the legislative process is not completed by March 31, then the Supreme Court will be obligated to immediately start the process of closing courts and sending employees home without pay, i.e. furloughs," he said, adding that the first furlough could occur in early April.
But House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, denied that would happen. He said the court system had other funds that could be used.
Some legislators also said that the state parks system, which is struggling financially, may be affected by the failure to pass the budget.
The meltdown occurred when House budget negotiators refused to sign a House-Senate budget agreement.
Both the House and Senate agreed to allocate $24.6 million to public schools in the current year to cover unexpected costs.
The House wanted to take the money from the transportation department, while the Senate and Gov. Sam Brownback proposed using general state revenues.
Both the House and Senate negotiators agreed to fund schools but to defer a decision on the method of funding to the wrap up session. But House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said that would have put the House at a disadvantage because if no agreement could be reached, the funding method would have defaulted to Brownback's position, which was the same as the Senate's.
Senators appeared incredulous, saying there were many items in the House-Senate budget report that could fall to the advantage of either chamber. "A deal was struck," said state Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood. "I can't believe it."
Moments later, Vratil led the charge in the Senate to kill a House-approved congressional redistricting bill that would have split Topeka into two districts.
That added heat to the already sizzling battle over re-drawing boundaries for congressional and legislative districts that must be done every 10 years to accommodate population changes.
In addition, House and Senate tax negotiators decided to defer their work until the wrap-up session too.
Brownback has been pushing hard to eliminate income taxes for 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses, and lower individual income tax rates.
But Senate Republican leaders and Democrats have urged a more cautious approach and focused more on proposals aimed at lowering property taxes.
The impasse over the budget also may have jeopardized a move to reinstate state funding for the arts.
Last year, Brownback vetoed $689,000 in funding for the Kansas Arts Commission, saying that public tax dollars shouldn’t go to the arts. The veto made Kansas the first state to stop state funding of the arts. Kansas also lost $1.3 million in federal and regional matching funds.
Facing a public outcry over his veto, at the start of the 2012 legislative session, Brownback proposed merging the un-funded Kansas Arts Commission and the Kansas Film Commission into a new entity called the Creative Industries Commission and placing that under the Kansas Department of Commerce.
In addition, Brownback proposed providing $200,000 from the Economic Development Initiatives Fund, which is derived from gaming revenues.
The House-Senate budget conference committee proposed increasing that amount by $500,000 from the Economic Development Initiatives Fund, bringing the total to $700,000. But because the budget has been deferred, that agreement may be up in the air.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, blamed Republicans for the failures of the session.
"We have a Republican governor and significant Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. It is inexcusable that we have yet to pass a budget after 73 days in session, especially while we sit on a $500 million state surplus," he said.
"We're heading back to our constituents after 12 weeks in the Capitol with absolutely nothing to show for it," he said.