During the campaign, many lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback downplayed or denied that the state was facing large budget shortfalls. But less than a week after the election, new revenue estimates showed the state must reduce planned spending by $279 million before July, and it needs an additional $436 million in spending cuts or revenue increases next fiscal year.
And that is just to get to zero. Restoring the statutorily required ending balance next fiscal year could require an additional $450 million in cuts or revenue.
Lawmakers are now acknowledging that they face a daunting task, though they are divided on whether all options, including taxes, should be on the table.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said that delaying or reversing income tax cuts was a nonstarter. Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, declared that the Legislature is "not going to make any changes in the tax code." But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and some other lawmakers have wisely said that both sides of the budget ledger revenue and expenses need to be considered.
Where and how might lawmakers cover the shortfall?
K-12 education accounts for half of the state general fund spending, which makes it a natural target. But Brownback bragged during the campaign about education funding, so it would be difficult to flip-flop and cut spending now. Besides, the courts likely will rule again that the state is inadequately funding education and needs to increase spending.
Medicaid, which is about 20 percent of the budget, is also difficult to cut because it is an entitlement and KanCare contracts already have been signed. So that could leave only about 30 percent of the remaining budget which supports prisons, higher education, social services, etc. to absorb the spending cuts.
Lawmakers likely will raid more money from the state's transportation fund, as they have been doing for several years. They likely also will target some state economic development programs, such as the Kansas Bioscience Authority. They may consider forcing school districts and universities to spend down some of their cash reserves — though that would penalize them for being fiscally prudent.
Lawmakers should delay future tax cuts but likely won't. However, they may look at eliminating or reducing more tax deductions as a way to raise revenue without changing tax rates. They may also consider raising the sales tax again though a better alternative would be to eliminate some sales tax exemptions. They should consider placing a cap on the amount of pass-through business income that is not taxed that way the policy truly targets small businesses, as Brownback claimed, and not the wealthiest Kansans.
What is certain is that eliminating the budget shortfall won't happen simply through "efficiencies."
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 20
Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick opened his mouth wide and inserted both feet during a recent interview with a newspaper reporter.
Merrick was chided on this page for his poor choice of words and his attitude toward state employees, who he said were, among other things, net consumers who didn't produce anything.
It must be the silly season, as the Kansas Democratic Party followed the news of Merrick's comments with an online petition that calls for Merrick to be ousted from his leadership post. It may be great theater, but it also is a waste of time that serves no purpose, other than to fire up party members.
It is known as playing to the base, and it generally does little, if any, good.
That is the case here, as members of the large Republican majority in the Kansas House will decide who leads them. It probably will be Merrick, who at this time has only one announced competitor for the position, who has a list of embarrassing comments of his own on the record.
Jason Perkey, director of the Kansas Democratic Party, knows the online petition will play no role in selection of the House speaker and said it was intended, in part, to make Republicans aware of how Kansans feel about Merrick's comments.
But Merrick and other Republicans got that message soon after the speaker's comments were published in The Wichita Eagle, as is evidenced by Merrick's subsequent statement designed to calm the waters.
As we said, the petition was good theater, and if the Kansas Democratic Party leadership thought it was something it had to do, so be it. But it is of no real consequence.
Democrats in the Legislature have their own decision to make. With former House Minority Leader Paul Davis leaving his seat for a failed gubernatorial bid, his former colleagues have to find their own new leader. Then, they must decide how they are going to spend their efforts during the upcoming legislative session.
Given they are a small minority in the House, as well as in the Senate, their impact on legislation isn't going to be great, and there aren't enough "moderate" Republicans in either chamber to aid their cause. (Another reason their petition is a futile exercise.)
There will be some legislation on which Republican and Democrat lawmakers can agree. Where they can't, Democrats must represent the opposing view and, if possible, strive for incremental changes they believe will serve all Kansans.
The Hutchinson News, Nov. 21
When Congress — not if — sends the president a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, he ought to sign it contingent on approval by the legislatures in the states affected. The fixation on this pipeline has become irrational, and it shouldn't be decided by irrational politicians.