Budget, taxes head up crowded agenda for Kansas Legislature
Topeka Kansas legislators are returning Wednesday from spring break to tackle a crowded agenda topped by a mandate to balance the next state budget and questions about which taxes they will increase to achieve that.
Top Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature believed they are close to settling the details of a proposed $15.5 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The state constitution prohibits a deficit, and legislative researchers have said lawmakers' spending proposals would leave a $422 million shortfall.
Legislators also could debate plenty of other issues before the scheduled end of their 90-day session in mid-May. Many Republicans want to pass a religious objections bill to protect faith-based groups on state college campuses seeking to limit their membership.
"The temptation is, for many of our members, to find leverage for something they care about," said House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican.
Here's a look at significant issues facing lawmakers:
Taxes in spotlight
The state's budget problems arose after lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging, in an effort to stimulate the economy. He wants to protect past reductions in income tax rates and an exemption for 281,000 business owners and 53,000 farmers.
Some GOP senators want to rethink the tax break for business owners and farmers, but Brownback is wary. He has proposed raising tobacco and alcohol taxes and has said he's open to increasing the state's sales tax, arguing that it's better for the economy to tax consumption rather than productivity.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said such policies favor the wealthy over working-class families.
Legislators also face pressure on the right to cut spending to avoid tax increases.
"I didn't come out of retirement to raise anybody's taxes," said Rep. John Edmonds, a Great Bend Republican who served in the House in from 1995 through 2006 before winning a seat again in 2012.
Higher education spending is a key budget issue. Before lawmakers began their spring break early this month, House and Senate negotiators had agreed on a proposal to keep state funding for higher education stable while freezing tuition at state universities for two years.
But Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz said the proposal could hurt its ability to provide high-quality academic programs. One negotiator, Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said lawmakers are working on a new version.
"I think higher ed is really the final piece that needs to get sorted out," Denning said. "I'm pretty comfortable that budget's pretty solid."
Kansas legislators are considering a religious objections bill despite the backlash against recent measures approved by lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas amid protests that they would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. Advocates on both sides agree the Kansas measure is different.
It would prohibit state universities, community colleges and technical colleges from refusing to recognize or provide resources to religious groups for requiring leaders or members to profess certain beliefs or adhere to a faith-based code of conduct.
Supporters say it sets a clear legal standard and allows groups to control who leads them. Critics say colleges would be forced to provide taxpayer- or student-funded resources to groups that discriminate, even on the basis of race or gender.
The bill passed the Senate last month and is awaiting debate in the House.
Length of session
Wednesday was the 73rd day of lawmakers' session, and they would meet through May 16 if they went the full 90 days. Sessions can be shorter — last year's was 79 days — but they've gone into overtime eight times in the past 20 years, including a record 107 days in 2002.