Hard choices ahead for legislators

Gov. Mark Parkinson is an optimistic guy who’ll surely find something nice to say during his first and final State of the State address on Monday. But that won’t be easy, as he also must be brutally frank about the state’s financial condition and the courage and leadership that will be needed in Topeka in the coming weeks.

Five rounds of reductions in the current budget, including Parkinson’s own gutsy cuts in July and especially November, are creating problems statewide. As of this month, the decision to cut Medicaid reimbursements by 10æpercent is affecting the ability of providers to help Kansans who are sick, poor, developmentally disabled or in nursing homes. District courts are planning shutdowns and furloughs. Prison units have closed. School districts are taking their grievances over the cuts back to court.

Meanwhile, state government is dealing with its cash-flow problems by shamelessly delaying school payments and some income-tax refunds.

If the state’s wheels haven’t come off yet, they’re wobbling violently.

Parkinson and lawmakers will need to spend even less in fiscal 2011, perhaps $400 million less if tax collections continue to come in below projections, or somehow come up with more revenue. And chances of more federal help are poor, at least beyond the stimulus dollars already flowing the state’s way.

The Democratic governor can use his lame-duck status by lobbying the GOP-led Legislature hard for creative solutions, starting with a thorough review of the $116 million a year in revenue that the state loses in exemptions of its 5.3 percent sales tax. Some of the breaks have legitimate value as economic development. Others help worthy nonprofit organizations. But those that are gimmes to special interests should go.

The governor’s proposal to raise tobacco taxes deserves serious consideration, too, for its potential benefit to public health as well as state coffers.

Even with the final action on the next budget sure to wait until after the updated revenue estimates in April, lawmakers will have plenty to work on.

They can serve common sense as well as public health and safety by passing statewide bans on public smoking and on texting while driving.

They should stop resisting a primary seat-belt law, so that law enforcement officers can pull people over just for being unbelted. Other states have seen such laws boost seat-belt usage and save lives, and passing one would entitle Kansas to $11.2 million in federal funds.

The state’s unused 16-year-old death penalty statute is overdue for scrutiny. Lawmakers also need to get serious about stabilizing the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System long term and deciding whether and how to fund another transportation plan.

And south-central Kansas lawmakers will have to be dogged in advocating for continuing state dollars to serve area priorities such as aviation training and research, lower airfares and graduate medical education.

Kansans should help guide the Legislature via e-mail, letters to the editor, public meetings and otherwise. There are hard choices ahead.