Editorials

Legislature leaves budget cutting to governor

Lawmakers should not escape accountability for failing again to restore balance to tax policy and order to state finances.
Lawmakers should not escape accountability for failing again to restore balance to tax policy and order to state finances. AP

The 2016 Legislature couldn’t be bothered to pass a budget that balanced, expecting the governor to finish the job with mostly unspecified cuts. That act of cowardice puts state-funded services and the state’s bond ratings at further risk, while leaving the structural unfairness and inadequacy of the state’s tax policy unaddressed.

The final actions early Monday undermined oft-stated claims by lawmakers that the responsibility for state spending decisions belongs not to the courts but to the Legislature. Is it even constitutional to adopt a budget fix that doesn’t fix the budget?

The process was as shameful as the result. No debate of such importance to so many should begin at midnight, nor require the legislative equivalent of a hostage crisis to gain the votes necessary for passage at 1:27 a.m. in one chamber and 3 a.m. in the other. If the House’s nervy move to adjourn for the year before the Senate had voted on the budget was meant as coercion, it worked.

At least some “yes” senators variously voiced regrets about further delaying a $96 million payment to the state’s pension fund and drawing down ever more highway funds, as well as worries about what will happen in the likely event that the Kansas Supreme Court rules that the school bill didn’t restore funding equity across districts.

“Those of us who come back next year better start figuring this out,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia. “And whether it’s revenue or cuts, or a combination of both – but we cannot continue to play the shell game. We cannot continue to move money around. We cannot continue to not pay our bills.”

The budget did wall off K-12 funding from the governor’s pending cuts. But that only “holds harmless” state support already failing to keep up with districts’ costs. The state agencies that serve vulnerable children, seniors and disabled Kansans could sustain millions in cuts.

And the state universities are expected to take another $17 million blow, under a formula that punishes the University of Kansas and Kansas State University for their success in attracting research and other outside dollars. Hefty tuition hikes could be a result.

The rush for the exits enabled GOP leaders to brag that the session lasted just 73 days, compared with last year’s record-breaking 114. But it did resemble last year, by showing that the conservatives who win elections by promising to cut government spending are loath to actually cut spending.

So the looming cuts will be Gov. Sam Brownback’s doing. But lawmakers should not escape accountability for them, nor for failing again to restore balance to tax policy and order to state finances.

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