Heed experts on state budget

08/20/2014 7:08 PM

08/21/2014 12:08 AM

Gov. Sam Brownback says that his economic policies are working in Kansas, “and don’t let anybody tell you any different.” His Democratic challenger, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, contends that Brownback’s experiment has failed.

National commentators also are weighing in, with pundits on the left and right offering conflicting opinions.

It can be difficult for Kansans to know whom to believe. If only there were nonpartisan experts who would objectively review the state’s finances and determine whether or not there were problems.

As it so happens, three such groups have done reviews. And all three are waving warning flags.

The nation’s two leading bond-rating agencies studied Kansas’ finances, and both downgraded its credit rating. Earlier this month, Standard & Poor’s cited the state’s “structurally unbalanced budget” in the wake of Brownback’s income tax cuts. In late April, Moody’s Investor Service expressed concern about “Kansas’ relatively sluggish recovery compared with its peers,” its revenue reductions from tax cuts that have not been offset, and the state’s raiding of its transportation fund to balance its budget.

Brownback has tried to downplay the downgrades. He claimed that the rating agencies have been “downgrading a lot of states” (that’s not the case), and he said that the agencies “don’t like you cutting taxes.”

But who is more credible: a politician struggling to convince the public that his policies are working, or agencies whose job is to provide investors with accurate, unbiased financial information?

The Kansas Legislative Research Department, the nonpartisan research arm of the Legislature, also is sounding alarms. It reported earlier this month that if revenue and spending followed projections, the state would end up this fiscal year with an ending balance of only about $29 million, and that by the end of the next fiscal year, it would be $238 million in the hole. So balancing the budget for fiscal 2016 and restoring the statutorily required ending balance could require about $700 million in additional tax revenue, budget cuts or a combination of both.

Brownback and some GOP state lawmakers have waved off the warning as mere estimates. “I’m not as scared as others seem to be,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover.

But the state’s budget is based on such estimates. And, again, who is more credible: politicians or the state’s nonpartisan researchers?

There will be a lot more claims about the state’s budget and economy before the November elections. Supporters and critics of Brownback’s policies likely will exaggerate the condition of the state’s finances to make it seem better or worse than it really is.

Voters should compare these claims with what the nonpartisan experts are saying and see what is accurate and what is political spin.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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