TOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Child advocates criticize Brownback budget

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen
January 17, 2015

The Governor’s Office is defending a proposal that some child advocates say would make it easier for the state to siphon dollars from early childhood education.

Unveiled last week, Gov. Sam Brownback’s state budget would shift the entire Children’s Initiatives Fund — a pot of money administered by the Children’s Cabinet — to the State General Fund in fiscal year 2017.

The Governor’s Office said this is meant to increase accountability and consolidate early childhood programs within the Kansas State Department of Education, which according to education commissioner Randy Watson sought the change to better coordinate initiatives. But skeptics fear the Governor’s Office may be pursuing an accounting maneuver that would make it more difficult for advocacy groups to show when dollars earmarked for the wellbeing of children are diverted to plug holes in the state budget.

“I have no idea how we get to better coordination or accountability with that strategy,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, CEO of Kansas Action for Children and a member of the Children’s Cabinet, appointed by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

Kansas Action for Children has lobbied for years against the Kansas government’s nearly annual practice of sweeping early childhood funds for other purposes.

The Children’s Initiatives Fund is fueled with annual payments from the tobacco industry — part of a 1998 settlement in which tobacco companies faced health care claims brought by Kansas and other states.

On average, Kansas receives nearly $59 million per year through the settlement. In 2017, the Governor’s Office proposes depositing $57.3 million in tobacco funds into the State General Fund and maintaining the same level of programming.

“Every existing childhood program funded by CIF (the Children’s Initiatives Fund) continues to be fully funded in this budget,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Eileen Hawley, wrote in an email.

The Kansas State Board of Education, which steers the education department, decided last week to write a thank you letter to Brownback. The Governor’s budget — if lawmakers approve it — would house the Children’s Cabinet within the education department, taking with it a number of early childhood block grants, autism diagnosis grants and other programs for infants and young children.

Watson said he understands the concerns of advocates like Kansas Action for Children, but his agency sees an opportunity to improve coordination and thereby services for children. He described his agency’s request as nonpolitical, saying it has sought this change under past administrations, as well, and recently lobbied for it again because the state board wants to put greater emphasis on kindergarten readiness.

Watson said, as he understands it, the governor’s proposal doesn’t cut funding for children’s programs — nor would the education department want that to happen. Appropriations decisions are, however, out of the department’s hands.

“Would it be swept in the future?” Watson said. “None of us have a crystal ball.”

Amanda Adkins, chair of the Children’s Cabinet, expressed confidence the proposal wouldn’t have negative effects.

“Changing the direction that funds flow does not impact our role, responsibility or focus,” said Adkins, a business executive and member of the Kansas Chamber’s board of directors, appointed to the Cabinet by Brownback.

But fellow Cabinet member Terrie Huntington, a former Republican state legislator appointed by then-Senate President Steve Morris, disagreed.

“I think they’re looking for dollars anywhere they can find extra dollars,” she said.

Kansas has faced falling revenue forecasts for more than a year, which have continued even after the Legislature hiked taxes and took other measures last summer in an attempt to stabilize the state’s fiscal situation.

Cotsoradis noted the Children’s Initiatives Fund exists in statute. Bypassing it long term would require statutory changes instead of a budget proviso, she said, and absent that, there is a risk the governor’s proposal would last only one year. She rejected the idea that Brownback’s proposal improves coordination, because of the potential temporariness and the fact that some Cabinet programs would remain housed at other state agencies.

She was referring to about $12.3 million in tobacco revenue that the Division of Budget said would remain at other agencies, such as funding for a children’s mental health program operated through the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, Kansas’ federally designated state mental health authority.

Hawley indicated statutory changes might be considered if the Legislature agrees to shift the Children’s Initiatives Fund to the State General Fund.

“If this is adopted in the budget, there could be a proposed statutory change to eliminate the CIF since it would no longer be needed,” Hawley said.

Meanwhile, Kansas’ vision of an endowment for childhood programs continues to elude the state.

Annual tobacco payments are expected eventually to shrink, but lawmakers decided in 1999 to retain part of each year’s receipts in a special endowment that would accrue and provide stable long-term support for the Children’s Initiatives Fund.

According to a 2014 briefing by the Kansas Legislative Research Department, this strategy never panned out, in part because the state has repeatedly used money from the endowment to address budget shortfalls. The department’s tallies indicate about $180 million was swept into the State General Fund between 2001 and 2015. This left the endowment with a balance of $3 million as of the end of fiscal year 2015. Under Brownback’s budget, the endowment would end 2017 with about $167,000.

On whether the proposal would have any effects for the existence of the endowment or the Children’s Cabinet, Hawley said “there is no current or planned proposal” to abolish either.

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