Sooner is better on cuts

Gov. Sam Brownback is finally starting to level with Kansans about the state budget problems.
Gov. Sam Brownback is finally starting to level with Kansans about the state budget problems.

Because sooner is better when it comes to making midyear cuts, Gov. Sam Brownback is due credit for getting on with it Tuesday and announcing 4 percent reductions to state agencies and fund sweeps aimed at plugging a $280 million state budget hole.

With Jan. 1 the halfway point of the 2015 fiscal year, it would have been unwise to wait for the Legislature to return Jan. 12 (though it will have to approve the fund transfers). Every week of delay would just magnify the impact on the affected agencies as they try to implement cuts.

The reductions bypass K-12 school districts and state universities, keeping the governor’s stated commitment to education as Kansans wait for the courts to decide the school-finance case. Public safety also was largely spared.

Still, the announced $280 million in allotments signal quite a change from the “sun is shining” theme of the governor’s successful re-election campaign. So does reducing the state’s contribution to the state employee pension system by $41 million, after Brownback took credit for helping restore the system’s long-term fiscal health.

And these are not the “efficiencies” that budget director Shawn Sullivan had insisted would fix the state’s finances. Many are real cuts that will undermine legislative commitments as they affect programs and personnel.

Because further tax cuts are scheduled and a $436 million shortfall is forecast for fiscal 2016, these can’t be viewed as short-term reductions to be undone as money becomes available, either. Some changes likely will become permanent, which means diminished staffing and services will be as well. And Sullivan singled out “nonclassroom spending” and the pension system Tuesday in talking about needed money-saving legislative reforms going forward.

Transferring $96 million from the state highway fund, on top of $263 million already tapped for other uses in the current budget, also raises more questions about whether the state can fulfill the $8 billion in projects promised by the 2010 transportation plan. Sure, Brownback is only doing what he and other governors have done in raiding highway money, and his move Tuesday was accompanied by an assurance that announced projects “will continue as planned.” But it’s hard to believe highway funds can be repeatedly looted without consequences.

It’s also frustrating that Brownback’s budget fix includes seizing $14.5 million from the Kansas Endowment for Youth. That money is supposed to help pay for early childhood programs.

It’s important to remember that the budget shortfall was predictable and self-inflicted. When the 2012 Legislature passed a plan slashing state income-tax rates and eliminating income taxes on non-wage income for about 191,000 small businesses, Brownback said that “we’re going to make it work.” Two and a half years later, $280 million in cuts and fund sweeps are needed to “make it work,” with more budget pain ahead.

But at least the Brownback administration is starting to level with Kansans about the state budget problems, and taking actions to counter them.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman