Budget shortfall looms over most issues as 2015 Kansas legislative session begins

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas lawmakers returned to Topeka to begin the 2015 session with a massive state budget shortfall looming over most other issues, but Monday's activities at the Capitol were mainly ceremonial.

At his inaugural ceremony in the House chamber — moved indoors because of cold temperatures — Gov. Sam Brownback said the state's challenges can be resolved only by strengthening families and changing the culture from one that focuses too much on personal satisfaction rather than on obligation and sacrifice.

"We are headed to a renewed, stronger culture, to better days," Brownback said. "And as in the past, we will take America with us. The future of Kansas is strong."

The governor's speech didn't touch on a projected shortfall of more than $710 million in the current budget and for the fiscal year beginning in July. That issue is expected to be a centerpiece of his State of the State speech Thursday evening.

Several other statewide elected officials and judges were sworn in during the inauguration ceremony, and later all House members also took the oath of office to begin the new session. Legislators opened the session in a jovial manner — replete with handshakes and speeches about putting aside party differences. But the mood likely won't last as legislators start looking for ways to deal with the state's budget gap.

The projected $279 million shortfall in the current budget resulted from personal income tax cuts enacted last session at the urging of Brownback, who proposed last month to address the gap by diverting funds for highway projects and public pensions to general government programs.

That plan drew immediate, bipartisan criticism from legislative leaders because it would divert $41 million from the pension system for teachers and government workers. Some lawmakers have suggested the possibility of rolling back some of the tax cuts, but others, like House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, have called the budget shortfalls "a spending problem."

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means committee, said the governor's plan to redirect funds to fill gaps in the current budget "will only buy time."

Any tax changes wouldn't produce additional revenue until July 1, she said, and there's a possibility the state could be forced to enact retroactive tax increases on goods and services.

"Somehow we will get the regular budget done," she said. "But we really, seriously don't have the money."

The Kansas Democratic Party issued a response Monday afternoon that questions the governor's definition of "family," his commitment to the poor and his ideas for growing the state's economy.

"His tax policies have worsened the divide between rich and poor and have benefited the wealthy and well off while reducing programs for the poorer Kansans such as homestead relief for renters and food sales tax rebates," KDP chairwoman Joan Wagnon wrote.

Lawmakers also must contend this session with the uncertainty arising from a Shawnee County District Court panel's ruling that said the state needs to pony up at least $500 million more per year to meet its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for public schools.

"Since the obligations here declared emanate from our Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option," the judges said in a Dec. 30 ruling.

The state is expected to appeal the panel's decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.

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