Parkinson’s leadership key on budget

There should be no more cuts in state funding to public schools, said Gov. Mark Parkinson last week.

There had better not be, warned Schools for Fair Funding, with its 60 districts’ unanimous vote Friday to haul the state back into court.

But that’s where the money is, many state lawmakers would argue — pointing to education’s 52æpercent share of the state general-fund budget and their challenge to close a more than $350æmillion budget gap for fiscal 2011.

And no one wants to raise taxes during a recession, even one that economists claim is officially over.

All of which guarantees an ugly fight over public education in the legislative session that begins Jan. 11, as part of an epic struggle to craft a balanced budget without decimating state-funded services — and without the benefit of last session’s millions in federal stimulus dollars.

No wonder Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, referred to state budget director Duane Goossen as “Dr. Doom” last week.

All eyes will be on Goossen’s boss, Parkinson, as the first and final legislative session of the governor’s brief tenure unfolds.

Parkinson already has presided over more budget cutting than any other Kansas governor. His and other reductions have trimmed $1æbillion from what was a $6.2æbillion budget for fiscal 2010.

In several interviews last week, Parkinson sounded newly unequivocal about the need to spare public schools, higher education and prisons from further cuts.

“We cannot afford a mediocre school system,” Parkinson told Associated Press. “Our excellence is at risk, and we are drifting toward mediocrity, and mediocrity is not acceptable.”

He also stepped up talk of repealing some sales-tax exemptions and considering hikes in tobacco or other taxes — ideas due full consideration at a time when parolees’ post-release supervision has been cut, court furloughs are slowing prosecutions and the social safety net is fraying.

To those interest groups and others claiming that billions of available public dollars are being held in reserve at the state and local levels, Parkinson said: “Show me the money.”

Parkinson’s leadership will be important in the coming months. And he should be in a unique position to lead, having decided not to run for his job next November. This spring he will be free to advocate whatever he considers to be in the best interest of Kansas — not necessarily the same thing as what would best serve him at the polls. He can wield his veto pen freely.

The Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature are familiar with Parkinson (a GOP state chairman before he joined Democrat Kathleen Sebelius’ re-election ticket in 2006) and seem to respect the unflinching leadership he’s already shown on the budget, energy and otherwise.

This is an election year for many legislators, which will complicate things. But all ideas should be on the table, and a truly bipartisan partnership should be the goal. The budget may defy anything less.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman