Session adjourns with divergent budget bills

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JIM O’MALLEY
The Legislature finished its regular session Saturday without finishing its biggest task-solving the state’s $700 million budget shortfall. That will have to wait until legislators return on May 1.

The budget bills passed by the House and Senate are at least $170 million apart, and both would require tax hikes that many legislators remain reluctant to support. Conference committee meetings to try to reconcile the differences will begin during the break.

The Senate began its budget debate Thursday, only two days before the scheduled end of the regular legislative session, and adopted a budget by evening by a 22-18 vote. All 10 Senate Democrats voted against it.

The vote adopted the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recommended budget for the 2003 fiscal year. It would cut State General Fund spending by $228 million from 2002, a 5-percent reduction. But spending from all state funds would rise by $430 million, a 4.7-percent increase.

Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, chair of the Appropriations Committee, told the Senate it would take $300 million to $400 million in new revenue to pay for the budget, depending on whether lawmakers decided to dip into the state’s required 7.5-percent ending balance.

The budget would:

Keep state aid to school districts at its 2002 level of $3,870 per pupil, rejecting the governor’s recommendation of a $20 per pupil increase.

Transfer $70 million from the general fund to the State Highway Fund to pay for part of the Comprehensive Transportation Plan passed by the Legislature in 1999.

Keep all state prisons open.

Make cuts in a variety of social services programs.

Along the way, the Senate rejected two amendments that would have increased state aid to school districts by $20 per pupil.

Sen. Christine Downey, D-Inman, offered the first. Asked by Sen. Nancey Harrington, R-Goddard, how she would pay for it, Downey said she’d vote for increases in taxes on income, sales, corporations, gasoline, pop or bottled water.

“You name it, I’ll vote for it.”

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said he supported the $20 per pupil increase because education was the most important economic development program the state had.

He said his favorite tax increase would be to double annual corporate franchise fees, which haven’t been increased in 30 years. Vratil said business people in his area told him they’d be happy to pay it if the money went for education.

But Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said that with the state facing a $700 million budget shortfall, just holding education at the 2002 level was a big victory.

Most of the senators who spoke said the decision was a hard one, but Sen. Ed Pugh, R-Wamego, said he didn’t find it tough at all to vote against the $20 per pupil increase. It was workers laid off from Boeing who had it tough, he said. If they’re doing with less, so should the state government, and its biggest component, education, Pugh said.

After Downey’s amendment failed 24-15, Harrington offered an amendment to take money from the transportation budget to pay for a $20 per pupil increase.

Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, supported the amendment. She asked, “Do we vote for concrete or do we vote for kids?’

But opponents said that transportation had already been cut by $140 million, and that any more would endanger the state’s Comprehensive Transportation Program.

Harrington’s amendment failed 25-12. The Senate also rejected amendments to restore some money to higher education and social services.

The hard part remains-coming up with the money for the budget. The Senate budget bill would require a $300 million to $400 million tax increase, while the budget bill passed by the House late last month would require a $129 million tax increase.

The Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee voted Thursday to send a $330 million tax increase proposal to the full Senate. It would raise increase sales, cigarette, alcohol, inheritance and corporate taxes.

Bills to raise an estimated $266 million from increases in sales and cigarette taxes were from increases in sales and cigarette taxes, which were introduced in the House this week.

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