State, school budget cuts are taking a toll

The toll on schoolchildren, college kids, poor Kansans and others surely will mount.
The toll on schoolchildren, college kids, poor Kansans and others surely will mount. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas’ fiscal mismanagement is not a victimless crime. On Wednesday the list of the injured grew as the state slashed Medicaid payments and higher education spending, the Wichita school board cut jobs and bus access, and state universities requested tuition and fee hikes.

The toll on schoolchildren, college kids, poor Kansans and others surely will mount, until Statehouse leadership does more than ignore, defer, compound and off-load the problems.

Gov. Sam Brownback delivered his part of Wednesday’s bad news as he signed the budget, which already heavily relied on delaying a pension payment and raiding the highway fund. More than half of the $97 million cuts were made to KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system, in the form of 4 percent lower reimbursement rates to providers. That move counterproductively reduces federal Medicaid dollars to Kansas by $72 million – on top of the $1 billion in federal dollars Kansas has foolishly sacrificed by refusing to expand Medicaid.

The governor’s array of cuts also hit up the state universities for $30.7 million, under a formula that penalized the University of Kansas and Kansas State University (by 5.1 percent each) for their success in obtaining research grants. Wichita State University’s 3.8 percent cut will amount to $2.8 million.

The cuts leave the system with nearly $100 million less in state general fund appropriations than in 2008. As WSU’s Joseph Shepard and six other student body presidents said in a joint response: “When higher education funding is cut, students suffer.”

Quantifying some of the suffering Wednesday, university leaders presented their requests for tuition and fee hikes as high as 5 percent to the Kansas Board of Regents.

That same day, the Wichita school board approved $18 million in cuts for the 2016-17 school year, leaving $5 million in tough decisions to go. Squeezed by flat state funding and rising costs, the board will ax more than 100 positions, close Metro-Meridian Alternative High School and eliminate bus transportation for 2,185 students, among other cuts. The vote followed emotional pleas from students and teachers and, in the editorial board’s view, insufficient consideration of the teachers union’s proposals or a small property tax increase.

If the pressure on the state budget and state-funded services is bad now, it will only build if the Kansas Supreme Court orders lawmakers and the governor to increase K-12 spending by June 30.

Brownback is prevented by term limits from running again. But many of the lawmakers who have abetted his agenda, which all started with the 2012 income tax cuts, will be on the ballot later this year – as will many good candidates who understand how imperative it is to make tax policy fair and sustainable again.

Kansans need to note how state leaders’ mistakes are costing their families, schools, communities, health and quality of life, and vote accordingly.