State budget still looks bleak

When the Legislature gavels in again in Topeka late this month and finally faces the reality of the state’s revenue mess, lawmakers may have to get over their fear and loathing of all tax hikes in a hurry.

It’s true that state revenues finally didn’t disappoint in March, and the unemployment rate is heading in the right direction. Perhaps the latest state revenue estimates due Friday will further raise hopes.

But three months after Gov. Mark Parkinson laid out the bleak scenario and his proposed solutions in his State of the State address, the fiscal 2011 budget still looks bleak, the fiscal 2012 budget threatens to be worse, and his ideas seem reasonable. To fill a $400 million-plus budget gap, he proposes a 55-cent-per-pack hike in the cigarette tax and a 1 percentage point, three-year sales-tax hike.

He talked up those ideas again last week in a meeting with The Eagle editorial board, noting the tobacco increase would bring Kansas to the national average and that the temporary sales-tax increase, like Sedgwick County’s recent 30-month arena tax, would be unlikely to harm the economy.

“I don’t think people will notice when the (sales) tax goes on, and I don’t think they’ll notice when it goes off,” Parkinson said. “But the reward that we’ll get is that — unlike other states that are dismantling their public school system and not funding their universities and not funding their retirement systems — we’ll be able to keep things going at this minimal level. And then as the economy rebounds and we get our normal revenue growth, we’ll be able to get these programs back on their feet. That just seems to me to make sense.”

As he said, it’s been encouraging to see bipartisan support in the Legislature for rescinding the 10 percent Medicaid cut the governor so reluctantly made Jan. 1, and to see public opinion polls favoring higher taxes to fund Medicaid and strongly opposing more cuts to social services for the elderly and people with disabilities.

That “says good things about Kansans,” Parkinson said.

It also says, along with polling showing strong support for K-12 schools, that Kansans can see the $1 billion in multiple rounds of state budget cuts in their communities and lives, and that they don’t want to see more.

The governor — serving in a job to which he wasn’t elected and having sworn off the fall election — is free to advocate what he sees as best for Kansas, rather than what will best serve a campaign.

“I don’t want to raise taxes. . . . Unfortunately, the economy doesn’t give us that luxury,” he said.

When lawmakers begin the wrap-up session April 28, they will have to decide whether Kansas should start the economic recovery from where it is — at what Parkinson calls a “very sparse level” of state spending, after painful cuts to education, social services and transportation — or whether they want to keep cutting, whatever the consequences.

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