Stakes are high in state budget

Lives literally may be in the balance as the Legislature reconvenes today and seeks to pass a new state budget.

Since 2009, 65 Kansans have died while on waiting lists for in-home services, according to Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas.

"People are languishing," she told the Lawrence Journal-World. "Reducing their quality of life does lead to their death without dignity."

Budget decisions also will determine whether some Kansans remain independent. Tuesday's Eagle reported on how the state has made pound-foolish cuts to programs designed to keep disabled Kansans in their homes and out of institutional care.

"They'd rather pay to put me in a nursing home than pay somebody a few bucks to come help me three hours a week," one woman said. "You ask them for help, and you can't get it. They say they'll help people. They're liars."

People with developmental disabilities and their advocates will rally in Topeka on the south side of the Capitol this morning to raise awareness of how budget cuts are affecting their lives. More than 4,000 Kansans with developmental disabilities are on waiting lists for help. Read some of their stories on the website invisiblekansans.org.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state are making painful budget cuts that could affect the futures of children. The Wichita school board voted Monday to cut 117 positions, including all 14 driver's education teachers.

"I've never been through anything like this in my years on board," said Wichita board vice president Connie Dietz.

Other state budget cuts affect programs that help parolees successfully reintegrate into society — a public safety concern.

Lawmakers also have opportunities to help save lives by passing a ban on texting while driving and approving a primary seat-belt law, which would allow law enforcement officers to pull over people for being unbelted. The seat-belt law would entitle Kansas to receive about $11 million in federal funds.

The Legislature will be considering two sharply different budget approaches. A Senate plan seeks to hold education funding flat while restoring some social services funding. It would require at least $400 million of new revenue, such as increases in tobacco or sales taxes. A House GOP budget plan — which Gov. Mark Parkinson has threatened to veto — wouldn't raise state taxes but also wouldn't replace about $86 million in federal stimulus money for education. That could result in more budget cuts for schools and in local property-tax increases.

As lawmakers debate these options and other alternatives, they need to avoid locking themselves into closed-minded, ideological stances. Instead, they need to remember that their decisions aren't just about numbers; they are about the lives and well-being of thousands of Kansans.