This year was a memorable one for Kansas state government. Lawmakers tangled over a variety of issues during the longest Kansas legislative session in history. To wrap up 2015, KPR’s Stephen Koranda looks back at a few of the most high-profile events at the Statehouse this year.
It was supposed to be a 90-day session, but Kansas Lawmakers worked on tax and budget issues for a record 114 days. That was seven days longer than the previous record set back in 2002.
The tax debate of 2015 led to one of the most memorable -and potentially smelly- moments in the Kansas Statehouse. Republican state Senator Dennis Pyle put a proposed tax increase bill in the trash with something he deemed equally offensive: catfish bait.
“Something that smells really bad, if I opened it up this whole place would reek. It’s called stink bait. If you want to come and smell it you’re welcome to open it. It’s in the trash can under my desk. That’s where that tax increase is right now, it’s right beside that stink bait,” said Pyle.
Democrats and some Republicans argued that the Legislature should look at revising the tax cuts made in recent years to fill a budget hole. Other Republicans said budget cuts were the solution. After weeks of work, some lawmakers were at the end of their rope.
“This whole situation is ridiculous.”
That’s Republican state Senator Les Donovan, who chairs the Tax Committee.
“And I don’t mean just ridiculous, it’s worse than that. We know better than what we’re doing here. We’re standing here acting like children,” said Donovan.
His frustration led him to threaten to resign as the tax chair, but he stayed on the job. Threats of huge budget cuts eventually led enough Republican lawmakers to agree to raise sales and tobacco taxes.
Legislators also tinkered with the single largest item in the Kansas budget, K-12 education. They scrapped the old school funding formula and went to a temporary block grant system for the next two years. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle called the old funding formula “broken.”
“That is why we’re going to break down these walls and we're going to write a new formula, and student achievement will be first. And that’s what’s best for the students of Kansas,” said Wagle.
Others argued the formula wasn’t broken, it just wasn’t adequately funded. Tom Burroughs, the top Democrat in the Kansas House, took issue with the speed of the bill. It went from introduction to the governor’s desk in just two weeks.
“This rush to expediency should be a great concern to many because of the lack of transparency, the limited knowledge and the limited ability in which to testify,” said Burroughs.
Twice this year, state officials updated projected tax collections. Those figures are used by lawmakers when writing the budget, and both times, the projections were lowered significantly. That meant a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from where lawmakers thought they’d be. Governor Sam Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, said some national trends were hurting Kansas tax collections.
“We are an agricultural based state that has farm commodities that have been challenging. We have an oil and gas sector that has just been very challenging over the last year. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen that,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan pointed to job numbers and business growth to show the tax cuts put in place were spurring the economy. But in November, Democratic state Senator Anthony Hensley squarely blamed the tax cuts for the state’s budget troubles.
“I think there is absolutely no question that we have got to revisit, we’ve got to go back into the 2012 and 2013 income tax cuts if we’re going to have any future stability within the budget,” said Hensley.
As this year slips into legislative history, lawmakers are preparing for yet another possibly difficult session. The first day of the 2016 session begins on Monday, January 11th, with the governor delivering his State of the State speech the following day.