HUTCHINSON NEWS: Legislators consider robbing from children’s fund to balance budget

By Ron Sylvester
March 10, 2016

Some Kansas lawmakers have decided to bolster the state’s crumbling finances by robbing its children.

The state’s $250 million shortfall is well known by now, the product of tax breaks given to businesses four years ago. To help make up for that, the Senate Ways and Means Committee has introduced a bill this session that would rob money meant to pay for safe roads and children’s programs to make up for Gov. Sam Brownback’s failed tax plan.

SB 463 would abolish the Children’s Initiative Fund and the Kansas Endowment for Youth, which provide early childhood education and parenting programs for families in need. It would move millions into the general fund and set up a committee, appointed by Brownback, to decide how much money would go to our children most in need. Brownback hasn’t shown he can be trusted with the state’s bank account, and confidence in his leadership has reached new lows.

If that weren’t bad enough, we learned this week that the governor and his legislative lackeys may be up to something more diabolical. Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, said this week during a hearing for SB 463 that Brownback’s administration had been looking to sell a stake in future payments of the state’s tobacco settlement to help get a short-term fix to the long-term budget problem.

Cotsoradis claimed a plan was in the works to sell future tobacco settlement payments, worth about $600 million, for $400 million, which would go directly into the state’s general fund. The proceeds from the multi-state lawsuit against tobacco companies now go into the CIF for these programs.

Senate Bill 463 also would take $500 million earmarked for highways and shovel it into the general fund. That’s money that now is earmarked for road and bridge improvements. Kansas ranks sixth in the nation in having the most structurally deficient bridges (2,303). Opponents have accused Brownback of using the “Bank of KDOT” to prop up the income-tax policy.

Brownback, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to backtrack on his tax plan, which removed more than 300,000 business owners from the state income tax rolls in 2012. Since then, the state has fallen short of revenue each year − $53.5 million short of projections in February alone.

At least three Republicans may be trying to bring the party to its senses. Jim Denning and Greg Smith, both of Overland Park, and Senate Vice President Jeff King of Independence introduced a bill this week to repeal the income-tax exemption. While they may have the votes to pass the measure, they first have to prove they have enough votes to override Brownback’s certain veto. Until then, it’s little more than lip service.

Denning also sits as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, behind SB 463, to rob funds for highways and children.

The committee introduced and sponsored the bill. For the record, the members are Denning and Sens. Ty Masterson (R-Andover, who chairs the committee), Laura Kelly (D-Topeka), Tom Arpke (R-Salina), Steve Fitzgerald (R-Leavenworth), Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence), Dan Kerschen (R-Garden Plain), Jeff Melcher (R-Leawood), Michael O’Donnell (R-Wichita), Larry Powell (R-Garden City) and Caryn Tyson (R-Parker).

At stake with control of the CIF money, for example, are the Kansas Preschool Program and Early Childhood Block Grant, totaling more than $1 million a year in Reno County alone.

Taking money that was promised to help families and children when Kansas settled the tobacco lawsuit is no way to make up for a tax plan that doesn’t work.

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