Eagle editorial: Fiscal storm is coming

Kansas is experiencing the calm before a certain fiscal storm.
Kansas is experiencing the calm before a certain fiscal storm. Associated Press

The 2013 Legislature did the heavy lifting of passing a two-year budget, and the Kansas Supreme Court has yet to issue its potentially budget-busting school-finance decision. So Gov. Sam Brownback had little to offer regarding the state’s finances last week beyond some budget revisions.

But Kansas is only experiencing the calm before a certain fiscal storm, as the historic 2012-13 income-tax cuts interfere with the state’s ability to pay its bills.

To his credit, Brownback addresses some of the problems of the 2014-15 budgeting in his proposed revisions, slightly increasing corrections funding and helping out the judiciary with $8.3 million more for next fiscal year. He even seeks the first salary increase for classified state employees in six years.

He would restore the funds that state universities had lost to a salary cap and tackle some specific needs at Kansas Board of Regents institutions, including a worthy $2 million to further Wichita State University president John Bardo’s plan for an “innovation campus.”

But Brownback didn’t seek to make higher education whole, mostly expecting campuses to handle the 2013 Legislature’s unwise and strangely punitive cuts. It will be left up to the south-central Kansas delegation to fight for the restoration of $2 million for the National Center for Aviation Training.

And it’s unclear whether the governor’s modest increases will be enough to help the Kansas Department of Corrections and the other agencies under severe budgetary pressure. At a House hearing last week, Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts discussed the consequences of the 60 percent cuts to offender programs and 46 percent cuts in re-entry services over the past five years, including that thousands of offenders are being released from prison each year without needed treatment for substance abuse or mental illness.

“Particularly the offender programs and re-entry services have everything to do with recidivism rates,” Roberts said, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Looking ahead, former state budget director Duane Goossen noted that if the Legislature takes Brownback’s recommendations, spending would outpace revenue by $169 million this fiscal year and by $288 million in fiscal 2015. “Once the bank balance depletes, lawmakers must reduce spending or find a way to increase revenue,” Goossen wrote on his blog for the Kansas Health Institute.

And the fiscal bind will tighten sharply if the state Supreme Court upholds a lower court’s decision calling for at least $440 million more annually for K-12 schools.

Indeed, the fiscal future is so uncertain that even the governor’s commonsense and overdue recommendation to start funding all-day kindergarten at a cost of $16.3 million a year is being met with skepticism among legislators.

“I think we’re in good shape,” Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan told the Senate Ways and Means Committee, talking up the tax cuts’ impact on the economy.

But it’s hard to see how the state can possibly reconcile its falling revenues and increasing spending obligations, at least beyond the point when its newly healthy reserves run out.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman