Lawmakers surely hoped the worst of the 2015 session would be forgotten by the time the 2016 Legislature gaveled in. No chance of that, though, as the historic tax hikes that ended the record-long 114-day session were no budget cure.
Disappointing revenue collections month after month, despite downscaling of official estimates, mean the state could be $14 million in the red for the fiscal year that ends in June and at least $170 million short for fiscal 2017.
Will Gov. Sam Brownback’s prediction of no more tax hikes or deep spending cuts hold up? Will state leaders just dig deeper into the highway fund to pay the state’s bills, and cash in on their little-noticed suspension of the transportation department’s borrowing cap last year? Could 2016 really see a 75-day session, as envisioned by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita?
Kansas voters will be watching all this closely, and noting how fiscal reality in 2016 conflicts with the rosy promises made about the 2012-13 state income tax cuts. Of course, offsetting the shortfall will do nothing to answer the multiplying needs for more money across state services, including at prisons and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
Lawmakers also must act quickly to bring court funding out of jeopardy, to protect patients and restore federal Medicare funding at Osawatomie State Hospital, and to audit and otherwise scrutinize the foster care system – including whether it’s systemically discriminating against same-sex foster parents. Left over from 2015 was the need to prevent state officials from skirting the open-records law by using private e-mail accounts.
A functional, responsive Legislature also would help hospitals and the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. And it would repeal or at least further delay the law forcing state universities to allow concealed guns as of July 2017, a mandate causing security concerns among faculty, students and parents.
Unfortunately, prospects are poor for the bipartisan goal of exempting food purchases from sales tax, as Kansas needs the more than $400 million generated annually.
Of course, the Kansas Supreme Court could chart a new course for the 2016 session, if it sides with school districts and decides that the state must spend much more on K-12 education. With or without such a ruling, regrettably, the governor and Legislature can be expected to engage in more efforts to control and undermine the judiciary.
But as soon as the session starts Monday, the primary job of the governor and GOP legislative leaders must be fixing the state’s fiscal mess. If they fail to do so responsibly – something that should mean revisiting the 2012-13 reform and its business exemption – they will do so at the risk of losing conservative seats when the entire Legislature is on the ballot in November.