To hear conservative think tanks tell it, whatever ails the state budget can be cured by drawing down cash reserves in state agency accounts — and "without cutting essential services or increasing taxes," to quote an ad in the Sunday Eagle.
If that were true, the Legislature's GOP leadership could count on the session that starts next week to be a breeze and Gov. Mark Parkinson need not have made the politically challenged suggestion to raise cigarette or other taxes.
But a very different — and more realistic — scenario faces Parkinson and returning legislators, with a revenue shortfall of more than $300 million to fill for fiscal 2011 as damage reports come in from 2009's five rounds of spending cuts amounting to $750 million.
National Guard armories and prisons are closing. Courthouses are planning temporary shutdowns. Teaching jobs have been cut. Waiting lists are growing for in-home services for Kansans with disabilities. There are backlogs of unprocessed Medicaid applications and untested DNA samples. Paper income-tax returns could take nearly four months to process, or twice as long as in the past.
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The budget couldn't even catch a break from Old Man Winter, which dumped snow and ice across the state starting Christmas Eve at a time when crews' overtime pay rates were higher.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, told The Eagle editorial board last week: "We have no experience with two straight years of declining revenues" — let alone four straight years, which is what Kansas will face if economic forecasts hold up.
Some legislators' calls for further cuts, especially for K-12 education, are further complicated by the strings attached to some of the anticipated federal stimulus money, which won't come if states cut their education funding below 2006 levels.
In this context, GOP legislative leaders' requests for more money for their branch — 4 and 3 percent more for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, respectively — seem unreasonable. When increases are off the table and more cuts are assured for most state-funded services, why should the Legislature get away with "trying to save where we can," as House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, described it?
For his part, Davis is hoping that enough legislators of both parties will appreciate the gravity of the situation to want to say, election year or not, "Let's work together. Let's govern together."
That may be too much to hope for, but all the state's leaders need to resolve now not to let this historic budget crisis spark a historic budget battle.