- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican Gov. Sam Brownback cut Kansas’ higher education spending Tuesday after the state’s tax collections fell $54 million short of expectations in February.

The lower-than-anticipated revenues last month left the state facing a small deficit in its current budget, for the fiscal year ending June 30. The Department of Revenue’s report on monthly tax collections came only two weeks after the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill aimed at keeping the budget balanced through June 2017.

Brownback ordered a $17 million cut in spending on state universities, or 3 percent of the tax dollars allocated to them, over the next four months. The Board of Regents said it will decide by the end of the week how the reductions will fall.

The state must make further adjustments to keep its budget balanced. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said it can no longer rely on “budget maneuvers” it has used in the past, including this year.

“The time has come to cut every government funded entity,” Wagle said in a statement. “The reduction will be small when equitably spread across the board.”

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Democratic legislative leaders blamed revenue shortfalls on what they described as the governor’s fiscal mismanagement.

Brownback and Department of Revenue officials cited national economic factors, particularly a slump in agriculture and oil and natural gas production. The Republican governor has argued that his tax policies have created jobs that have offset other economic problems.

“My focus is on managing spending, not on raising taxes,” Brownback said in a statement. “Our goal is not to fund the growth of state government; it is to help the Kansas economy grow.”

Most of Brownback’s income tax cuts were preserved amid the budget problems that followed, but Republican legislators last year raised sales and cigarette taxes.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, accused Brownback of “gross negligence” in handling the state’s finances.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat, said in a statement: “It is time for Kansans to stand up and demand the Republican majority change course and fix the mess they’ve created.”

The Department of Revenue said the state collected $303 million in taxes last month instead of the $357 million projected in a November fiscal forecast. The shortfall for the month was 15 percent.

Since the current fiscal year began in July, the state has collected $3.68 billion in taxes. That’s $80 million less than anticipated and a shortfall of 2.1 percent.

Collections of sales, individual income and corporate income taxes all have fallen short of expectations during the current fiscal year.

Department of Revenue officials said the state is processing individual income tax refunds more quickly this year than last year. February also saw an unusually large number of refunds because the leap year added an extra, 29th day to the month.

“If you look at those states that have that ag, oil in their economy in any significant way, we’re all in the same boat,” Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan said.

The budget-balancing plan approved by legislators closed gaps in the current $15.6 billion budget and the next fiscal year’s $16.1 billion spending blueprint largely by shuffling funds and capturing unanticipated savings. The bill is on Brownback’s desk, and he has until Thursday to decide whether to veto individual items in it.

Tax collections fell short of the state’s projections for six of the seven months through January, and lawmakers expected the budget legislation to leave the state with cash reserves of only $6 million on June 30 and $86 million at the end of June 2017.

With February’s shortfall, the state would have a projected deficit of $48 million on June 30 and only $32 million in cash reserves at the end of June 2017.

But Board of Regents Chairman Shane Bangerter, a Brownback appointee, urged the governor and legislators to ensure “stable” funding for state universities “so that tuition can be kept low and our students can succeed.”

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

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