Brownback, Legislature now must clean up mess

The state’s fiscal crisis is sure to limit as well as dominate the legislative session.
The state’s fiscal crisis is sure to limit as well as dominate the legislative session. The Wichita Eagle

Once the ceremony and well wishes are out of the way Monday for Gov. Sam Brownback’s second swearing-in, he and the 2015 Legislature will face a fiscal crisis sure to limit as well as dominate the session.

Faith in the income-tax cuts won over voters, but it won’t pay the state’s bills.

Anything that costs money could be off the table as leaders try to come up with the resources to fund Brownback’s latest two-year budget and stave off further credit downgrades and projected shortfalls for fiscal 2015, 2016 and beyond.

And if lawmakers are inclined to ignore the recent ruling by a Shawnee County District Court panel that the state must come up with $500 million to $770 million more for K-12 public schools – waiting as the appeal proceeds – other key players are paying attention.

After downgrading Kansas’ credit last year, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s both noted last week that the schools ruling will put further pressure on the state as it tries to close a $280 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and to right its fiscal course longer term.

“We remain concerned about the one-time nature of most of the budget fixes,” the S&P report said of Brownback’s plan to raid transportation funds and reduce the state’s pension contributions, among other controversial steps.

“The lower court’s recommendation comes at a particularly stressful time for state finances,” and “staggered tax rate reductions from its 2013 tax reform in fiscal 2016 through 2018 will provide continuing headwinds,” said Moody’s.

Because the governor and GOP-controlled Legislature remain committed to the tax cuts – no matter the consequences to K-12 schools, higher education, social services and other state priorities – it would be surprising if votes could be found to even slow them down, let alone roll them back. If leaders go anywhere in search of new revenue, it likely will be to the transportation plan (again) or perhaps to a higher statewide sales tax or higher gas tax. Forget the good idea to end sales tax on groceries.

In the coming money fight, area lawmakers must be prepared to defend state spending for area highway projects and for Wichita’s air service and special facilities for aviation research and training.

Meanwhile, state leaders must give the judiciary the flexibility it needs to counter a $3.6 million budget deficit (while refraining from further curbing the Supreme Court’s authority). It’s past time for lawmakers to debate and decide Medicaid expansion, which is increasingly urgent for hospitals as well as uninsured Kansans.

And would lawmakers be so kind as to stay away from bills that would flout science, deny service to same-sex couples and otherwise embarrass the state?

As the three-judge panel noted in the schools decision, the state’s fiscal dilemma is “self-imposed.” The leaders who made this mess must now clean it up, though Kansans can be assured the consequences will be felt far from the Capitol and long after Brownback takes his oath.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman