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State budget director apologizes for erroneous number in Brownback presentations

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, at 3:16 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, at 9:26 p.m.

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The director of the Kansas Budget Division issued a public apology Monday for an errant spending statistic that Gov. Sam Brownback has used for months to claim credit for state spending cuts that never happened.

A top Democratic leader said he will call for an investigation to find out how such a big error went unchallenged for so long.

The error was contained in a chart showing state all-funds spending 1965-2012, which Brownback has used in a PowerPoint presentation at speaking engagements to opinion leaders across the state.

The chart showed state spending peaking at about $16 billion in 2010 — the final year of Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson’s administration. The actual spending that year was $14.04 billion.

As detailed in The Wichita Eagle on Sunday, Brownback has repeatedly used the number in claiming to have reduced state spending since taking office at the beginning of 2011.

In fact, spending under the Brownback administration has been higher than it was under Parkinson, the opposite of what the chart showed.

“The Kansas Office of the Budget maintains internal records documenting the rolling expenditures of the State of Kansas,” said a statement by Budget Director Steve Anderson. “The spreadsheet is updated regularly to record the most recent information.

“Upon review, we have discovered a mistake in a 2010 entry which was the source of the error passed along by the budget office to Gov. Brownback’s office. We should have caught the incorrect information but we did not. I apologize to Gov. Brownback and the citizens of Kansas for this error.”

Meanwhile, Brownback still has “full confidence” in Anderson, according to his spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

Anderson said the error was not included in the budget plan that Brownback submitted to the Legislature.

“It’s gargantuan,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said of the error. “I think it has a dire effect on their credibility. I feel like they’ve been fast and loose with the numbers since, well, ever since their administration started.”

Hensley, a member of the Legislative Post Audit Committee that can request probes of state agencies, said he plans to request an investigation of how the error occurred and went unnoticed. The committee will meet March 20.

“I’ve never known of a budget director to have had to make an apology for this big of a mistake,” he said.

Newton Republican Rep. Marc Rhoades, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it was a big error. But he said he understands miscommunication can happen and that the legislative vetting process remains trustworthy and strong.

He said he still has confidence in the budget division and its director.

“That can happen to anybody,” he said. “They’ve been very responsive.”

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said the Legislature gets a lot of numbers and that they are triple-checked during the Legislative process, limiting the impact of an error in the Governor’s presentation.

“By the time they get to us, they’re fairly reliable, and it’s up to the Legislature to do their due diligence too,” he said. “You get one mistake. It’s bound to happen. I’m not going to raise the white flag just yet.”

In addition to the overall spending number, the Sunday story in The Eagle also raised questions about a separate set of numbers the governor has used in his presentations, where he says that the state’s schools lack adequate fiscal discipline.

Ken Ciboski, a professor of political science at Wichita State University and a longtime participant in Republican politics, said he has been in contact with people around the state through social media since the story was published.

“Based on what I saw, I think people had a pretty negative reaction” to the error, Ciboski said.

Ciboski said the numbers issue may have become a kind of focal point for more general concerns about Brownback and his plans to spur private-sector expansion and investment by cutting income taxes and reducing the size and reach of Kansas government.

The underlying issue is “When is all the great wonderful stuff that’s supposed to happen coming to fruition?” Ciboski said. “People have had some pretty grave doubts about that since the beginning.

“Very definitely I think there’s some dissatisfaction out there; especially in Johnson County, I’m hearing from people there.”

However he said that absent a major crisis, he doesn’t see Brownback losing any elections, because of the current conservative dominance of state politics.

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