TOPEKA — Former state Rep. Larry Campbell walks a tightrope through a charged political landscape as the state's budget director.
He's responsible for addressing budget interests of his boss, Gov. Laura Kelly, and working collaboratively with Republicans and Democrats in the Kansas Legislature, which sometimes appears to be going in 165 directions.
"My job is easy. This governor understands budgets," Campbell told members of the House and Senate during a budget briefing.
Nearly 50 representatives and senators in the Kansas Truth Caucus, a coalition of conservatives, said they doubted the viability of Kelly's budget presented last week to the Legislature. The caucus questioned Kelly's commitment to fiscal austerity and her goal to expand eligibility for Medicaid.
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and caucus leader, said he was puzzled Kelly didn't recommend using part of a projected $900 million surplus in the current fiscal year on reducing the state's sales tax on food. Kelly has endorsed reduction of the grocery tax but said the pivot wouldn't come at the expense of budget stability.
"The reduction of the food sales tax for Kansas families represented a unique opportunity for Gov. Kelly to work with conservatives, yet it was nowhere to be found in her remarks or her budget," Masterson said.
The state increased the sales tax to 6.5 percent during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback to help balance the budget.
House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the state's budget begin hearings this week in Topeka on financial options.
Emily Fetsch, with the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, said Kelly's budget would responsibly pay down debt, rebuild the state workforce and finance K-12 public schools.
"Little of this spending is glamorous or exciting," Fetsch said. "Legislators should approach this proposal with the same care and attention with which it was crafted."
State Treasurer Jake LaTurner opposed Kelly's initiative to compel the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to refinance the public teacher portion of the pension fund. Reamortization would free up $160 million annually for other government needs but could require investment of $7 billion more into the system over 30 years.
"The plan Gov. Kelly has laid out for KPERS is irresponsible. We cannot keep kicking the can down the road and asking our children and grandchildren to foot the bill," said LaTurner, who is on KPERS' board of trustees.
The board decided to send a letter to Kelly this week recommending no change in amortization of the retirement system's obligations.
Dennis Mullin, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, said Kelly's proposal to add $9 million for higher education was a "step in the right direction" toward restoration of budget reductions imposed in the past decade.
"Education beyond high school represents the best path towards prosperity for Kansas families, businesses and communities," he said.