State passing the buck

State leaders love to rail against the burden of federal mandates, unfunded and otherwise. Then they turn around and, with little foresight and no apology, burden and shortchange local governments.

The local effect of the buck- and burden-passing is dramatic right now in Kansas school districts, where boards and superintendents are trying to decide how many teachers to lay off, schools to close and programs to cut in response to the decision by the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback to return base per-pupil funding to 2000 levels.

Sedgwick County commissioners were vocal about the state’s culpability before they reluctantly voted to cut funding for programs that help keep kids out of trouble and jail. Because of a $620,000 cut in state Juvenile Justice Authority funding, Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Girl Empowerment Program of the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas lost all their county funding and other worthy programs were cut back.

And the Wichita City Council will consider more consequences of the 2011 legislative session today as it changes ordinances relating to seat belts and driving under the influence.

Currently, failure to wear a seat belt in Wichita carries a fine of $30, including court costs. But the 2011 Legislature, as it hiked the highway speed limit to 75 mph, capped the seat-belt fine at $10 with no court costs to be added. So Wichita, where police wrote 5,000 seat-belt citations last year, stands to lose $100,000 under the new law.

In theory, communities should be safer because of the new state DUI law, which was itself shaped by the work of a state DUI commission formed after a drunken driver crashed into and killed a 4-year-old and her mother three years ago in Wichita.

Now, as offenders face higher penalties and a longer time frame for breath testing, the city stands to see $225,000 more in DUI fines generated this year. A change related to jurisdiction also could save the city on the jail fees it’s charged by Sedgwick County. And public safety should be served by better tracking of repeat offenders and requiring that first-time DUI offenders use interlock devices when they drive.

Then again, the city has about $50 million in unpaid fines for various offenses now, and little means of making people pay. Someone unable or unwilling to pay a $500 minimum DUI fine won’t be more likely to pay a $750 one. Meanwhile, the county expects to see the DUIlaw affect its budget beginning in 2012 related to the jail and community corrections.

Sticking with a decision made three governors ago, the state also continues to flout its statutory obligation to share many millions of dollars in tax revenue with local governments.

During a time of extreme economic stress across the private and public sectors, it’s reasonable to expect pain to be dispersed. As Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau warned last week, “Any entity or individual who relies on the government for their income or support does so at their own peril.”

Still, with the aftershocks of the 2011 legislative session now hitting locals hard, one wonders again why there is no Golden Rule among governments.—