Could have been worse

The Kansas Republicans who newly control the governor’s office as well as the House and Senate deserve a measure of praise for going only six hours over the 2011 Legislature’s allotted 90 days. It took more than 20 budget negotiations and an all-nighter to bridge both a $500 million shortfall and the GOP split between the two chambers, but they did it.

The results could have been worse — and would have been, if the Senate leadership hadn’t stood firm against even deeper cuts and advocated for important priorities, and if Gov. Sam Brownback hadn’t backed away from his campaign pledge to hold general-fund spending flat.

Thank goodness for Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, and others in the south-central Kansas delegation who successfully advocated for area priorities such as the Affordable Airfares program. The session also saw good work toward reforming worker’s compensation, fixing the state pension system, educating future engineers, and saving the Kansas Arts Commission and public broadcasting funding (though Brownback appears ready to overrule legislative will in both categories).

But the $13.8 billion budget itself offers scant cause for celebration.

On the campaign trail and in his State of the State address, Brownback had called education the state’s “primary function,” as important to Kansas as defense is to the nation.The final number doesn’t match his words, though: The $3,780 base aid per pupil in the 2012 budget is the lowest since the $3,770 level of the 1999-00 school year; adjusted for inflation, it’s comparable to per-pupil spending back in 1992.

It’s as if the 2006 resolution in the school-finance case was just a dream, and the Legislature is no longer obligated by either the Kansas Supreme Court decision’s anticipated funding increases or the state constitution’s instruction to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

With the layoffs, program cuts and closed schools it’s forcing on districts — including $30 million in cuts in Wichita — the budget will only strengthen the lawsuit filed last November by 63 districts in the Schools for Fair Funding, which argued that “schools do not have enough money to fund the education that state and federal laws require them to provide.”

The budget also will mean many fewer dollars for social services, community mental health centers, parole officers and other vital state priorities. And while leaving perhaps $50 million in state reserves, it leaves 4,000 people with disabilities on waiting lists for services.

Plus, the session will stand out for an onslaught of anti-abortion measures passed without regard for court decisions or legislative rules, and a new voter ID law based on an unfounded fear of voter fraud.

And shame on Senate leaders for failing to even vote on the House-passed bill to end the hypocritical exemption for state-owned casinos in the smoking ban — inaction signaling the state is more interested in protecting casino revenues than public health.

State leaders are so glad to have the session over that they may be blinded to its flaws. But the consequences will be severe and deeply felt, and at odds with Brownback’s characterization of the budget deal as “a great victory for Kansas.” If this legislative session was worth marveling over at all, it was as a demonstration of the lengths to which state leaders are willing to go to avoid tax increases.