By Patrick Lowry
April 26, 2016
We hope Kansas lawmakers rested up during the five-week break that ends today. There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done before the session ends, and there isn’t much time left.
As legislators return to Topeka on Wednesday, they need to find $140 million for the current fiscal year that ends in two months and another $150 million for fiscal year 2017. That is the minimum amount needed to avoid ending a year in the red — something the constitution does not allow. It doesn’t factor in any new spending for public education — something the courts have found to be constitutionally inadequate at current levels.
We would anticipate legislators continuing to ignore the education funding component until the Kansas Supreme Court mandates attention. Thus far, statehouse leaders in both chambers have brushed aside lower court rulings on the adequacy issue and simply played a shell game with the equity portion. Genuine efforts instead have focused on changing laws that could impeach justices of the high court who dare to defend the citizens of Kansas instead of the executive or legislative branches.
Lawmakers can’t ignore the deficits staring them in the face after yet another downward revision in expected revenues. They knew there wasn’t enough money to finish 2016 or 2017 in positive territory when they passed budgets, but needed the revenue consensus group to get their attention. Last week’s numbers took expected revenues down more than a quarter of a billion dollars — from the numbers they imagined a mere six months ago. For those keeping track at home, the November numbers were pushed down $350 million.
With about 70 days left in the fiscal year, expense reductions won’t work. There isn’t enough time for them to take effect.
The same is true on the revenue side. Even if the Legislature reinstated income taxes on the 330,000 entities currently getting a free ride or on wealthier Kansans, state coffers wouldn’t see an increase until next year. It is obvious to everybody except Gov. Sam Brownback and so-called conservative legislators that the reckless tax cuts enacted in 2012 are the root cause of the state’s financial woes. And there aren’t enough moderate Republicans left to forge an effective alliance with Democrats in order to stop the fiscal insanity.
All that leaves on the table are gimmicks such as delaying payments to the state pension system and swiping even more money from the transportation program. This year’s crisis management proposal includes a new twist: Selling off part of the state’s tobacco settlement that earmarks funding for early childhood development. Brownback envisions this piggy bank robbing would generate $158 million for the state immediately and, according to him, would not decrease future payments to the Children’s Initiative Fund.
Baloney! The only way a “partial securitization” could work is if lawmakers remove all of the legal safeguards put in place when the settlement was crafted in the 1990s. Once the state opens that door and begins dismantling one of the nation’s most efficient and effective early childhood education systems, lawmakers will be able to raid it as often as they do KDOT and KPERs in order to keep the income tax cuts in place.
Not surprisingly, this is Brownback’s recommended path to prosperity. And it would be on top of the nearly $110 million he’s redirected away from young Kansas children since taking office.
How the governor can rationalize sacrificing future generations so Koch Industries and a handful of other large corporations can save hundreds of millions of dollars in tax obligations is beyond us. How he still believes this supply-side approach will work in Kansas when it hasn’t worked anywhere else simply proves Brownback is in complete denial.
Now, more than ever, Kansans need legislators to stand up to the governor’s failed tax policies. Lawmakers need to refuse giving the governor free rein to steal from children. The road projects and workers’ retirement funds can be made good again once the income taxes are put back in place. It will cost more, is recognized as a foolish path by any economist or financial analyst not reliant on Brownback for a job — but is recoverable.
The children, our state’s future leaders, cannot recover from missed opportunities. As the governor seeks cuts in public education from kindergarten through college, he should be denied the opportunity to raid preschool funds.
Legislators will require much more than being rested for the remainder of the session. They need to develop a backbone, declare the tax experiment failed and over, and protect the future for our children.
Anything less should be considered criminal.