January 14, 2016

If Gov. Sam Brownback was looking for applause lines during Tuesday’s State of the State message, there’s probably a reason he didn’t offer many details about his plans to address the state’s projected budget deficit.

The plan outlined Wednesday by Budget Director Shawn Sullivan is a continuation of the governor’s strategy of using short-term patches to close the remaining $14 million budget gap for the current fiscal year and a projected $170 million gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1. There apparently will be no effort during the current legislative session to raise any new revenues.

Instead, the governor is pursuing a different course, including cutting $23.9 million from the state pension fund and continuing to rob the Kansas Department of Transportation of an additional $2.1 million this year and $25 million next year. KDOT has money to contribute to the state general fund, at least in part, because it is acquiring a mounting debt. Last year, the Kansas Legislature and Brownback agreed to suspend for two years a provision that forbade KDOT from having aggregate bond debt service that exceeds 18 percent of its annual revenue. After selling a record $400 million in highway construction bonds last month, KDOT’s debt service total rose to 19 percent.

The governor also is willing to eliminate two state entities in order to balance the budget. His plans include cutting $5 million from the Kansas Bioscience Authority this year and raising an additional $25 million next year by selling all of KBA’s investment assets.

The governor also plans to eliminate the Children’s Initiatives Fund, which was created with money from the tobacco settlement and earmarked for children’s programs. The $50.6 million in that fund will go into the state general fund, and the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, which has overseen state grants from the CIF, will be moved into the Kansas State Department of Education.

The move will provide “greater transparency and accountability of that money in future years,” Sullivan said, but Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, said the action would jeopardize funding for critical early-childhood education programs.

“This isn’t just a shortsighted budget recommendation,” she said. “This will dismantle one of Kansas’ most innovative, forward-thinking legacies.”

Did someone say “shortsighted”? At least at this point, there is no indication that income tax cuts implemented by Brownback and the Legislature are having the predicted positive effect on the state economy and state revenues. To compensate for revenue shortfalls, the state is using shortsighted, piecemeal steps to plug budget holes. How many state agencies can the state sell or abolish to fill those holes? How much will the state endanger its highways or its pension fund? How far will it go into debt? How long will it take the state to undo the damage that’s being done?

Those are painful questions for Kansas, but ones that must be asked.

Read more from the Lawrence Journal World.