- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A shortfall in Kansas’ current budget wouldn’t be fully covered under a plan being quickly pushed toward passage by Republican lawmakers, new figures from the Legislature’s research staff showed Tuesday.

The report said tax collections from the start of the current fiscal year on July 1 through January were almost $66 million short of expectations - a little higher than the state Department of Revenue reported last week.

Earlier Tuesday, the Kansas House gave first-round approval to a bill aimed at eliminating a projected $344 million shortfall in the current budget. Legislative researchers had estimated the plan would leave the state with cash reserves of almost $65 million on June 30, but that was calculated before the final report on tax collections. Factoring in the new tax collection numbers, the bill would leave the state with an $800,000 deficit.

The House advanced the bill on a voice vote, and Republicans who control the chamber expect to pass the measure Wednesday. The GOP-controlled Senate also must consider the measure, but GOP leaders hoped to take an up-or-down vote on the House’s plan by the end of the week.

The new figures mean that if lawmakers pass the bill quickly - as Republican Gov. Sam Brownback wants - they may be forced to follow up with other adjustments later.

“Nothing precludes us from making further adjustments,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. “The thing about budgeting is that the horse is never all of the way out of the barn.”

The bill includes Brownback’s proposal to divert $158 million in highway funds into the state’s main bank account, where the shortfall occurs.

The measure also sweeps up $12 million earmarked for future spending on early-childhood education, children’s mental health and programs to diagnose autism early. It also diverts $4.6 million in unspent disaster-relief funds - a move that some lawmakers were troubled by given spring tornado season hasn’t yet arrived.

Brownback’s budget director has said lawmakers need to rewrite the current budget by Feb. 13 to ensure Kansas pays its bills on time. But the state also faces an additional projected $436 million shortfall in the 2015-2016 budget, beginning July 1.

The state’s budget problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes at Brownback’s urging in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy, dropping the top rate 29 percent and exempting 191,000 business owners altogether. Brownback has proposed slowing down future tax cuts and boosting tobacco and alcohol taxes - solutions that won’t help the current budget’s deficit.

The bill does make some limited spending cuts, but focuses more on moving money around to cover spending on other government programs, including prisons, education and social services.

The diversion of highway funds drew bipartisan protests during Tuesday’s debate in the House. Rep. Don Schroeder, a Hesston Republican, called it “pretty obscene.”

The Kansas Department of Transportation said some as-yet-unidentified road resurfacing, highway reconstruction and bridge repair and replacement projects could be delayed.

Backers of the bill said the state’s highway system would remain in good shape.

And Brownback, directing his comments to critics of the highway-funds diversion, said after the debate: “Come with your ideas. If somebody has a better idea of how to work through the situation we’re in, great.”

The bill’s supporters also said capturing unspent disaster relief funds isn’t a problem because state law gives the governor and legislative leaders the authority to set aside $10 million at any time to cover such expenses.

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Online:

Summary of budget-balancing bill: https://bit.ly/1zyGXhB

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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