January 1, 2016
A new legislative session begins soon, and troubled state finances once again top the agenda. Kansas staggers forward in a perpetual budget crisis that our lawmakers have been unable – or unwilling – to solve.
The basic problem is simple. Kansas does not have enough income to meet expenses.
The cause of the problem stems directly from Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts. Those tax policy changes indisputably led to a sharp decline in the state’s revenue stream. As a result, in the past three years, Kansas has consistently spent more than it takes in, a practice that makes the state poorer and poorer.
At first, lawmakers made up the difference between declining income and growing expenses by drawing down cash reserves. A $709 million bank balance went to zero in less than two years.
With the bank account empty, lawmakers began drawing hundreds of millions from other state government accounts. The highway fund has been the prime target, but many other funds, including those set aside for early childhood programs and economic development, also were sacrificed in the attempt to keep the general fund solvent.
Of course, lawmakers also tried hard to cut expenses. Funding for public schools, a prime responsibility of the state, has been pulled down far below where it should be. State hospitals and prisons remain understaffed. The current budget slashes planned maintenance on roads and bridges. Yet even these efforts have not lowered expenses nearly enough to make them fit within the dramatically diminished revenue stream.
The budget imbalance became so acute last year that even conservative lawmakers voted to raise the sales tax rate, a move that further shifted the state’s tax burden to low- and middle-income Kansans. The sales tax increase improved the overall revenue stream, but it did not come close to solving the problem.
The solution to the budget problem is easy to identify: Revisit the income tax cuts, which were far too deep.
Don’t expect that, though.
Brownback has announced that he does not want to deal with any tax changes this session. Nor do the conservative legislators who voted to raise the sales tax. This is an election year for all members of the Legislature, so many would prefer that Kansans forget what happened in the past legislative session. It’s also unlikely that expenses will go down.
In their latest gambit to lower spending, lawmakers voted to pay a consulting firm $2.6 million to find “efficiencies” for them. The results are not all in, but the early recommendations from the contractor suggest selling wood chippers and paying bills late – a very inauspicious start.
When baseball great Yogi Berra died in September, the media replayed many of his famous witticisms. A favorite, “It’s like deja vu all over again,” was reportedly first uttered by Yogi when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the 1961 season. Yogi didn’t know it then, but his phrase applies to the Kansas budget now.
Read more from the Wichita Eagle here.