TOPEKA, Kansas — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback tinkered Thursday with Kansas' budget to keep it in balance, announcing $63 million in changes that he said should have little effect on the public.
Brownback took advantage of unanticipated federal funds and lower-than-expected spending by state agencies to lessen the chance of a deficit next year. Top Republican legislators praised his actions, but Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called them "gimmicks" that don't address the state's underlying financial problems.
Brownback said in an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press that his goal is to ensure that the state maintains a small cushion of cash reserves in its main bank account without any effects on government services. Budget director Shawn Sullivan had a Statehouse news conference Thursday to unveil the budget changes; Brownback met with business leaders in Wichita.
"It's more efficiencies of government," Brownback said. "We need to be as efficient as we can. It's a never-ending process."
The state's budget problems arose after GOP lawmakers cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. A budget-balancing plan approved by lawmakers last month allowed them to preserve the bulk of the income tax cuts but increased sales and cigarette taxes.
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat, said the state needs "sustainable revenue" rather than one-time budget fixes. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called the governor's actions "a set of gimmicks."
"We're going to be back in a budget crisis next year," Hensley said.
The biggest change in the budget is the addition of nearly $18 million in new federal funds for health coverage for children during the fiscal year that began this month.
Sullivan said the federal government increased its funding in late June, allowing the state to reduce its own spending. He acknowledged that Kansas could have used the new funds to expand benefits or cover more children.
The two-dozen changes outlined by Sullivan also booked savings in agency operations, including $8 million within the state Department of Transportation. Sullivan said highway projects would not be affected.
Also, Brownback is shifting unused fee dollars into the state's main bank account to help support general government programs, such as education and social services.
As Brownback promised last week, the budget adjustments would not touch aid to public schools. He also largely avoided spending cuts for higher education.
"Hopefully, we'll be done without people seeing any diminution in quality or availability of services from the state. That's what we're trying to get done," Brownback said.
The GOP-dominated Legislature counted on Brownback making $50 million in spending cuts in the $15.4 billion budget as part of their larger plan to avert a deficit.
Legislative researchers projected that without any budget adjustments, the state would have only $17 million in cash reserves going into July 2016. But the state finished its previous fiscal year last month with tax collections $26 million short of expectations, or 0.5 percent off.
With the changes outlined by Brownback's administration, the state would begin July 2016 with about $80 million in cash reserves if revenues for the current fiscal year meet expectations.
The GOP-dominated Legislature plans its own hunt for efficiencies — and has set aside up to $3 million to hire a private contractor to help.
"I am hopeful that the efficiency study the Legislature authorized will find additional, commonsense savings," House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said in a statement.
About $9 million of Brownback's budget adjustments represent money agencies had budgeted but didn't spend for the previous fiscal year, which normally would carry over into the current fiscal year.
Brownback's administration anticipates lower-than-projected spending on some programs. For example, it is trimming $1 million from in-home services for the physically disabled, anticipating that the money won't be necessary to end a waiting list.
"I think people had this great fear of these massive cuts and layoffs and program reductions and service reductions," Sullivan said before his news conference. "I think they'll find that this is really not that big of a deal."
Kansas governor: https://governor.ks.gov/
Summary of governor's actions: http://1.usa.gov/1VQgEz4
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