After buying my first house, I experienced the phenomenon known as buyer's remorse. I instantly thought I had overextended myself and regretted the purchase. Kansans may experience buyer's remorse with their Legislature after a contentious and trying budget battle during the 2011 session.
Kansas bought a fiscally conservative Legislature in the 2010 elections, and the Legislature delivered. Now it remains to be seen how the effects of that election will be received by the citizens of Kansas. Along with a cut-first, cut-only philosophy, the Legislature produced an aggressive cultural conservative agenda.
Despite Gov. Sam Brownback's admonition to focus on jobs and the economy, the Legislature had to go into overtime to pass a budget while considerable time was spent on bills adding more restrictions to abortion clinics and attempting to functionally ban nude-dancing establishments.
This Legislature will be judged, ultimately, on the budget it produced. Some progress was significant. The Legislature's biggest win over the long term may be a controversial one: addressing a shortfall in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. The projected pension shortfall would equal half of the state's current budget and is one of the greatest factors influencing other states' more serious budget crises. If the Legislature follows through on the issue it has agreed to study, it will deserve credit for handling a future problem before it achieved crisis level.
The rest of the budget experienced the slings and arrows of serious cuts as well. Seeking to prevent later cuts if revenues fail to meet projections, the Legislature ensured a $50 million surplus with more than half a billion in cuts, mostly focused on K-12 education. Kansas traditionally balances fiscal conservatism with a well-funded education system, but ever since 2005's Kansas Supreme Court decision, there has been a sense that schools need more, not less, funding. Normally a school-funding cut would spell disaster the next election year, especially for a freshly elected coalition. But the national economic downturn means that the public may accept those cuts, draconian as they are.
Uncertainty is in the air since the budget's passage. The conservative wave elected in 2010 swept in on a cost-cutting mandate. The voting public tends to look at promises of budget cutting better in even-numbered years than odd-numbered ones, though. Education cuts often sound great during election years but cause revolt at the next ballot box once the cuts get passed.
There is a lesson for the Kansas Legislature from an odd source: President Obama. Obama was swept into office in 2008 and immediately mistook a landslide for a mandate. The subsequent two years saw the president pursue an agenda that was too liberal for the tastes of voters once the rhetoric of campaign season passed. Obama was popular, but his popularity was separate from the preferences many of those who voted for him had on the issues he chose to pursue once elected.
The same reaction that led to Republican wins in 2010 could easily lead to a Democratic response in 2012.
When the public mandated cost cutting, it didn't specify what kind of cuts it wanted. Budget cuts are kind of like art — as long as things stay vague, most people don't get offended. Once things get specific, though, folks tend to get their feathers ruffled. Time will tell if the public was serious about accepting cuts, or if buyer's remorse will kick in once again.