Politics & Government

Drought a factor in Kansas budget

GARDEN CITY — The effects of Kansas' deepening drought seem to go on forever when seen from the air in a Kansas National Guard helicopter.

Parched fields with crops that never sprouted, burnt railroads and brown pastures stretch into the dust-tinged horizon.

Many spots in southwest Kansas have had less than two-thirds of their normal rainfall in the past year.

Melvin Neufeld, a farmer-rancher from Ingalls and former House speaker, said the last drought he remembers being this bad was nearly 60 years ago. Even then, it took storms of historic proportions to break the spell.

"We had 24 inches of snow at the end of March followed by rain after rain after rain," Neufeld said.

Gov. Sam Brownback toured the region last week, surveying the damage and talking to residents about the impact. He has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare 21 counties a disaster zone, which could trigger some assistance.

"Growing up on a farm and serving as the state's agriculture secretary, this is worse than previous droughts I've seen in a lifetime of agriculture," Brownback said. "It will take a great deal of time and rain to reverse the impact of this drought."

Neufeld said it would take several years for the soils to recover from the drought to return to plentiful harvests. A more immediate impact is the loss of bridges on a short line railroad that is causing problems in delivering grain and other goods to the region.

While the wheat crop is shot, some farmers may not even try another crop this spring, he said, extending the impact.

Legislative leaders say the drought's full effects won't be known for some time, but it is likely to be felt in state revenue collections.

"It's hard to really evaluate that. Obviously, you have a large part of western Kansas with a wheat crop that is either very poor or nonexistent," said Senate President Steve Morris, a Republican from the southwest city of Hugoton.

The drought is a factor as House and Senate negotiators try to finish the 2012 budget. There are signs the state economy is emerging from the recession, but a slump in the agriculture economy could blunt the recovery and force further cuts in state services.

A report for the week ending May 1 rated 45 percent of the Kansas wheat crop at poor or very poor condition. Only 2 percent of all wheat planted was rated excellent.

Many fear the drought will have an impact even after the rains finally return.

"We need to be mindful of the revenue stream, and the expense stream. There may be additional costs the state has to pay as a result of the downturn," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. "I think it's something we need to be thinking about."

Legislators are working with a thin margin in drafting the 2012 budget. The final product will total close to $14 billion and cut between 5 percent and 6 percent in overall spending compared with the 2011 budget. Those reductions include trimming state aid to public schools and other state programs.

"It's already affecting how farmers and ranchers are doing business, and that in turn will quickly begin to impact local businesses and communities," Brownback said. "We have to keep this in mind when looking forward in our effort to grow the economy and keep state spending within its means."

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said that even if the wheat crop is poor, farmers elsewhere in the state have soybean, corn and milo harvests ahead of them, with prices running higher than a year ago.

In addition, she said industries outside agriculture, including aviation, are showing improvement.

Neufeld said he thinks the drought is likely to affect not only agriculture producers, but the entire sector that depends on a successful harvest.

"There's no way there's going to be the volume of sales, so the price (per bushel) becomes irrelevant," he said.

Morris said crop insurance will help sustain farmers who lose their crops this year. The funds will be enough to pay the bills and prepare for the next harvest. However, that doesn't help businesses dependent on harvests, such as grain elevators.

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