Budget cuts having consequences

State Rep. Jason Watkins, R-Wichita, is a smart, pragmatic legislator who could have chosen his words more carefully last week in expressing surprise about the ability of state agencies to absorb wave after wave of budget cuts, including Gov. Mark Parkinson’s latest $260æmillion in cuts and other balancing acts.

“Apparently, we have yet to get to the bone of excess spending in government, because we continue to cut and we continue to cut and these agencies stay open,” Watkins, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Eagle.

Is that the best test of when state budget cuts will have gone far enough — when agencies are so broke they must shut their doors?

Surely not. Cuts can create harm far sooner.

The consequences on communities and lives will be both real and visible as the governor’s latest cuts shutter 18 of 56 National Guard armories under the state adjutant general, lengthen waiting lists for community-based services for the disabled and elderly, reduce the supervision of released prisoners, limit the numbers of physicians who can afford to accept Medicaid patients, and lead to a bigger backlog of unprocessed DNA samples at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and fewer road resurfacing projects. “The system is going to collapse,” said Mike Hammond, executive director at the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, about the cuts in state grants combined with cuts in reimbursement rates.

Officials predict some K-12 schools will close over the next year, forcing larger class sizes. Higher education will see fewer jobs, course offerings and class sections, despite increased enrollment.

As an article in Friday’s Eagle by Ron Sylvester noted, the latest $3æmillion cut to the state court system will force courts across the state to shut down temporarily or otherwise take steps that slow criminal prosecutions, stall custody hearings and prevention-from-stalking order filings, and risk public safety. In Sedgwick County District Court, the cuts will mean 12 days of unpaid leave for affected employees over six months, starting in February.

As legislators reconvene in Topeka in January to start work on a fiscal 2011 budget, they should keep in mind public opinions such as those expressed by Kansans last week in a SurveyUSA poll co-sponsored by KWCH, Channel 12, which found 60æpercent very concerned about state cuts to education (a number that held up across party lines) and 59æpercent very concerned about Medicaid cuts that affect people with disabilities, compared with 26æpercent very concerned about highway cuts. And when asked about higher taxes: 48 and 52æpercent said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes for schools and Medicaid, respectively (while 83æpercent nixed higher taxes for highway projects).

Parkinson has called on the 2010 Legislature to “look at the budget in a reasonable, nonpartisan way even though it’s an election year,” noting that in crafting a budget proposal for fiscal 2011, “we will analyze all our options.” One obvious place to start looking: the dozens of sales-tax exemptions on the books. It’s hard to imagine many of them holding up under serious scrutiny in such a budget emergency, starting with the exemptions inexplicably accorded to a single Rotary Club and a Missouri animal shelter.

Lawmakers have no good options when the state’s revenues plummet as sharply as they have in this recession, but that’s not the same as having no options at all.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman