TOPEKA — House and Senate Republican leaders warned Friday that Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s campaign promises exceed what could reasonably be delivered despite a projected $900 million surplus in the state treasury.
Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, in separate meetings with The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial board, rattled off expensive items from Kelly’s campaign wish list. It includes investments in K-12 schools, highways, early childhood education and mental health services. She supports Medicaid expansion and lowering the food sales tax -- all without a tax hike.
“We’ve taken a pencil to it,” said Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “Clearly, it ends up with red ink.”
Ryckman, of Olathe, said lawmakers in Kansas must take a four- or five-year perspective when considering spending proposals. If the vision extends no further than a year or two, he said, the state could find itself without cash to cover existing obligations and deal with new commitments.
Specifically, the House speaker said he was wary of the Kansas Supreme Court’s expectation that lawmakers would attach an inflation factor to the $500 million, five-year expansion in state aid to K-12 public schools. It could cost the state $90 million in the first year and compound to $360 million by the fourth year, he said.
“We don’t want to make any promises we can’t keep,” Ryckman said.
Kelly will be sworn in as governor Monday after a 14-year career representing Topeka in the Senate. She has vowed to create a structurally balanced budget that avoids revenue shortfalls that arose under Gov. Sam Brownback after he signed an aggressive bid to eliminate the state income tax.
“We must make sure the state budget is stable,” she said. “For the last eight years, Kansas has been devastated by Sam Brownback’s tax experiment. It caused massive cuts to our public schools, crippled our economy, cost us jobs and drove us into debt.”
Kelly will deliver her first State of the State speech Wednesday. On Thursday, Kelly administration officials will share details of her budget blueprint with the House and Senate.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who serves as vice president of the Senate, said strides were made in the past two years to restore fiscal integrity to the state’s budget. A key piece was repeal of a 2012 state income tax exemption for business owners, which was done in 2017 over Brownback’s veto.
“We have worked extremely hard to get us back on good fiscal footing,” Longbine said. “Now, we need to work extremely hard to stay there.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the first order of business in the Senate would be consideration of a bill allowing Kansans to itemize deductions on 2018 state tax returns even if not allowed to take those deductions on federal returns because of a law signed by President Donald Trump.
“It’s absolutely the No. 1 priority of the Senate to get that itemization bill across the floor,” Denning said. “Middle-class folks that itemized on their ‘17 taxes can’t itemize on their ‘18 taxes.”
In addition, he said, the state should use part of the $900 million surplus to pay debts piled up during the Brownback era. He wants to make a $115 million payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System that was skipped. It is appropriate to end the practice of taking as much as $107 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation to bus school children, he said.
Denning said the state should earmark a portion to assure repayment of $317 million snatched from one of the state’s unclaimed property accounts.
“Those need to be paid off before we begin expanding the footprint of state government,” Denning said.
GOP Rep. Dan Hawkins, who takes over as House majority leader when the Legislature convenes, said Kelly’s goal of expanding eligibility for Medicaid to 150,000 people was unfeasible.
A Medicaid expansion bill adopted by the House and Senate was vetoed by Brownback, but advocates of improved access to health care plan to seek passage again in 2019.
“We’ve had this discussion over and over and over again,” said Hawkins, of Wichita. “I wonder what point in time people are going to say, ‘Is there another way?’ We have to change the mindset that Medicaid expansion is the only way we’re going to get there.”