Tim Carpenter
September 23, 2016

The administration of Gov. Sam Brownback moved to solidify an interpretation of state law defining annual budget recommendations developed by state agencies as internal documents unavailable for public disclosure, officials said Friday.

Shawn Sullivan, the governor’s budget director, sent an advisory to Cabinet agency staff members declaring budget proposals forwarded to Brownback as “draft” documents exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act.

A constellation of events — persistent state tax revenue shortfalls, potential mid-year budget cuts by Brownback, proposed revision of employee layoff policies and the upcoming November election — have placed a bright spotlight on the state’s finances. Unexpectedly low tax collections in July and August have placed the state budget about $20 million underwater for the fiscal year.

Standard practice among Kansas agencies under direct control of a governor has been to require delivery during September of the next fiscal year’s budget strategy. These reports form the basis of a governor’s formal budget blueprint, which is released to the Legislature at the outset of annual sessions in January.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in a statement that Sullivan recently instructed state agency administrators to view their budget recommendations as internal documents or preliminary work product beyond reach of KORA requests from news organizations or special-interest groups interested in budget developments.

“Our past and current practice is that draft budget documents are pre-decisional and, therefore, considered exempt from KORA until the governor releases his budget recommendations to the Legislature,” Hawley said.

In December 2014, however, Sullivan shared with select lobbyists — weeks before submitted to the Legislature — an outline of Brownback’s concept for filling a budget hole driven by massive income tax cuts.

Those recipients, including lobbyists David Kensinger and Mark Dugan, were longtime political associates of the governor. Kensinger is the former campaign manager and chief of staff to Brownback, while Dugan ran the governor’s re-election campaign two years ago and worked for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.

The email traffic from Sullivan sent by private Yahoo account, first reported by The Wichita Eagle in 2015, showed the Republican governor wanted to raise the sales tax on cigarettes, divert highway funding and alter the state’s school funding formula.

In the current budget cycle, state agencies have been urged to study the possibility of offering the governor’s office a budget that features spending reductions of 5 percent. In a $6 billion state general fund budget, that size of reduction could constitute $300 million in downsizing.

Duane Goossen, state budget director in Kansas for 12 years under three governors and a seven-term member of the Kansas House, said agency budget requests were considered public documents by the executive branch from at least 1998 to 2010.

“Those were always open to the public or anyone during the years I was in the budget office,” Goossen said.

He said the approach adopted by the Brownback administration was a change from the philosophy of Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she had reviewed state agency budget documents submitted to Parkinson.

“It’s been a long time, but I’ve seen them,” said Kelly, who believes Brownback could turn to personnel layoffs to address ongoing budget woes. “Probably these budgets involve firing people.”

Rep. Russell Jennings, a Lakin Republican who directed Kansas’ juvenile justice authority during a period of recession-driven cost cutting, said the process of budget development necessitated discussion of ideas that might never be woven into a governor’s budget and presented to the Legislature.

He said individual agency reports often went through a series of revisions to find the “least harmful solution” during challenging financial times. Broad public discussion of potential spending change can generate unnecessary controversy if those alterations are never advanced, he said.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which supervises Kansas universities and colleges but is not a Cabinet agency, is mandated by statute to develop and submit to the governor a unified budget request for all institutions under its control.

Proposals developed by individual higher education institutions, as well as the joint proposal to the governor, are viewed by the Board of Regents’ legal counsel as public records, said Breeze Richardson, spokeswoman for the board. She said the board hadn’t received Sullivan’s directive.

“We are not interpreting it as a ‘working’ document,” Richardson said. “We will be releasing it when and if asked.”

She said recommendations to be forwarded to Brownback by Oct. 1 request the restoration of $30 million cut from the current fiscal year’s budget for higher education. That money was devoted to closing an overall shortfall between revenue and expenditures in the state’s budget.

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal here.

KendraTOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Brownback administration exempting Cabinet budget plans from KORA