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Eagle editorial: State budget vs. reality

  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time – a two-year budget cycle enabling lawmakers to “budget the first year, do oversight the second year,” as Gov. Sam Brownback put it a year ago. But a lot of unfinished fiscal business will greet Brownback and the 2014 Legislature next week.

In some cases, the state has no choice but to act.

For example, Brownback vetoed the entire 2015 budget for the Kansas Department of Corrections last summer rather than see it take a $10 million cut. In his veto message he said he looked “forward to working with the 2014 Legislature in finding the department sufficient resources to ensure public safety is not imperiled.”

Because statewide property-tax revenue has been lower than expected but K-12 enrollment is up, state funding for public schools is estimated to be $17.8 million less than the 2013 Legislature intended for the current fiscal year and $19.9 million short for 2015, the Lawrence Journal-World reported last month. The Legislature needs to offset the shortfall.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Board of Regents and some university leaders want the state to restore the money the two-year budget cut from higher education, including a $32.8 million reduction for fiscal 2015, and to revisit a damaging salary cap.

And a committee appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court recently forecast an $8.25 million budget shortfall for the state judiciary for fiscal 2015 and, as a result, 10 days of unpaid furloughs and other cost-cutting measures. The situation sounds more serious than merely a “difference of opinion over the level of funding,” as Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, characterized it.

The biggest budget cliff-hanger, of course, is whether the Supreme Court will side with a district court panel’s January 2013 ruling that K-12 public schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. If so, the court would be expecting the state to come up with at least $440 million in additional annual funding for schools. That would be a feat with the state’s existing revenue stream, which is about 9 percent less than a year ago because of the aggressive income-tax cuts that went into effect in 2013.

Other state agencies have quietly been making cuts. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism laid off 75 seasonal employees last month, and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services announced plans to eliminate 57 jobs at two state hospitals.

The Legislature also will need to consider the fiscal needs of social services, including many agencies that have sustained private as well as public funding losses during the long downturn, and of the local governments that have suffered what Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias called “death by a thousand cuts” since 2008.

Plus, all the competing priorities will make it hard to contemplate anything new, such as Brownback’s admirable proposal to fund all-day kindergarten statewide.

The two-year budget remains a worthy goal. But reality will deny the 2014 Legislature the luxury of viewing its budget work as already finished for the year.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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