By Senator Mary Pilcher Cook (R-Shawnee)
For the last several years, conservative legislators and interest groups have been sounding the alarm about the Kansas budget situation, explaining with some urgency how the path we have been on in past fiscal years was simply not sustainable, threatening not only the solvency of state government itself, but the long term-prosperity of our state and its citizens.
With the inauguration of Gov. Brownback and a new, more fiscally conservative House, the prospects for progress in this critical area are more hopeful than ever before. With the new administration taking a fresh look at state agencies from top to bottom, efforts to end smoke-and-mirrors budget gimmicks, and legislators and citizens finally engaging in discussion about the role of government in our lives, there is unquestionably progress being made toward a responsible government in Kansas.
With that in mind, it is important to have some historical background and to know the layout of both the House and Senate, which might provide some insight into why so many conservatives voted for the budget in the Senate, and why there was a mix of conservatives who voted for and against the budget in the House.
For many years, the Kansas Senate has been controlled by left-wing legislators – left-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats. The budget committee, named the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has 13 members and only two of those members are considered right-of-center, with even one of those members having voted for tax increases on numerous occasions in the past. The composition of the committee was the same this year.
In the Kansas House of Representatives, over the past several years, left-wing Republicans had enough members to unite with left-wing Democrats to pass legislation, and right-wing (or conservative) Republicans only had a limited voice on budgetary issues. That changed in the 2010 elections.
It’s also important to recognize that over the years, even though there have been a majority of Republicans in the Kansas Legislature, the majority leaned left and voted to accept federal money with future requirements, and they pushed tax increases with Enron-type accounting that hid excessive spending. In addition, we can’t forget the Kansas Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in the Montoy case, which did not take into account the Kansas economy (nor the Kansas Constitution), or the overall budget, but instead ruled for the Legislature to ratchet up irresponsible spending.
This history helps lay the framework about where we are today and insight into the path we should take toward reversing this fiscally irresponsible path.
Every year, the Legislature has an obligation to pass a budget. Failure to do so would have grave consequences. At some point, a budget bill must receive 63 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate so it can receive the governor's signature for vital functions of government to proceed. Politics and governing can often be much like a chess game, and to get the best outcomes, especially when dealing with a budget, it is often necessary to employ some analysis of likely future moves and activity.
In the FY 2012 budget debate, two differing approaches emerged among conservative legislators about which chess moves to make to obtain the aforementioned progress, which we all agreed was necessary. Some, particularly those in the Senate, felt killing the budget proposal would have resulted in putting conservatives into a checkmate position where no progress would have been made and the left-wing would have regained control of the budget, while others, particularly many conservatives in the House, felt that we possibly could have taken their King. It is this difference that is at the heart of the disagreement.
During the lengthy negotiation process, a budget emerged that passed in the early morning hours of Friday, May 13, with the Senate voting 28-11 and the House voting 69-55 to send it to the governor. An initial look at the yeas and nays would indicate an unusual split among fiscal conservatives, with a good number voting yes and another large set, mainly in the House, voting no.
The FY 2012 Budget includes a 6% decrease in the All Funds Budget, unquestionably a good step forward, but also included a 6.6% increase in the State General Fund Budget, which is included within the All Funds total. It is worth noting that the decrease in the All Funds Budget was largely due to the end of federal stimulus dollars, and it is also important to point out that some of the increases in SGF expenditures are on things the state must pay for as a result of originally accepting the stimulus dollars.
Finally, the budget put an end to some smoke-and-mirrors budgeting done in previous administrations by moving dollars from All Funds back into SGF, which also accounted for the higher SGF total. Some conservatives felt that these factors, combined with the decrease in the All Funds Budget, were sufficient enough progress to vote yes. Other conservatives felt that while the All Funds budget decrease was a good step, that the increase in State General Fund spending at a 6.6% level still required a no vote.
While conservatives certainly had a differing approach on the 2012 budget, a clear point needs to be made – our goal of having a fiscally responsible and prosperous Kansas remains the same, and we are committed to achieving that end result over the long haul.
Whether one cast their vote yea or nay, the FY 2012 Budget must only be the first step in what needs to be a focused series of fiscally responsible actions we must take in the next several years, both in terms of the budgeting process and actual spending in Topeka as well as at the ballot box. It is essential we elect committed fiscal conservatives to both Houses of the Legislature.
The 2010 elections sent a clear and convincing message – that Americans overall and Kansans, in particular, are demanding government live within its means and do so without further burdening the taxpayer with increased taxes. Undeniably, legislators must continue to be unafraid to pull back every layer of government to root out wasteful spending and work to increase efficiencies. This effort must include everything on the table, including education, where two-thirds of your tax dollars go. This means having the courage to speak the truth to not only each other, but with our constituents as well.
As we perform this necessary and time-consuming task, fundamental questions must be asked, including whether dollars spent are going to things government should be doing in the first place, and whether those dollars are being allocated in a way that is appropriate and efficient.
Make no mistake – there will be efforts to roll back even the modest start we made on fiscal responsibility in 2012. Kansans, particularly fiscal conservatives, must be prepared to not only resist those efforts, but work to ensure that our efforts at fiscally healing our state continue, or all the work we have done at campaign season will have been for naught.
Whether one was a yes or a no vote on the FY 2012 budget, that focus must not be lost. The long term health of our state remains in the balance.
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