There are new elected officials coming to Topeka but they’ll be dealing with a lot of recurring issues, including very large budget shortfalls, continued economic stagnation and persistently low student achievement despite record-setting funding levels.
Tax collections are at record highs, but a Kansas Legislative Research Department report shows spending already exceeds revenue by $600 million over the next two years, and the state will be out of money in 2022. The KLRD estimate doesn’t include any additional spending being proposed by Gov. Laura Kelly on Medicaid expansion, university or K-12 spending or any other budget increases; those would only make the deficit worse.
School funding also set a record last year at $13,620 per pupil. That’s a 95 percent increase over the last twenty years and double the rate of inflation, yet achievement is essentially unchanged and far too low. Reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress barely changed, going from 35 percent to 37 percent. The average ACT score is slightly lower and only 29 percent of Kansas students taking the test are considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science.
The state economy is also not performing at acceptable levels. Kansas is in its fourth consecutive decade of economic stagnation and the gap between Kansas and the nation on job creation and economic growth has gotten worse as state spending and taxation exploded over the past twenty years.
More spending isn’t the solution. Student achievement results in Kansas and across the nation prove that more spending hasn’t led to better outcomes, and spending more will exacerbate the budget shortfall. If legislators don’t soon start reducing wasteful spending, the ballooning deficit will lead to another massive tax increase that will further weaken the economy.
Fortunately, there are alternate ways to resolve these and other challenges.
Health care, for example, needs to be more affordable but expanding Medicaid will put enormous pressure on the budget, and not necessarily improve outcomes. Instead, change the rules on association health plans so that small employers are eligible to offer lower group rates to employees, and allow less-costly short-term health plans to make it more affordable to have coverage when between jobs.
Other issues can be addressed by focusing on results and making better use of existing resources.
Allowing students in schools where the average state assessment score is below grade-level to take their funding to a school of their choice would provide immediate relief to those kids and incentivize local school boards to prioritize spending to produce better results. Districts could also improve operating efficiency by having non-instructional functions provided through a few regional service centers, and use the savings to invest in better instruction opportunities or increase pay for effective teachers.
To the extent more resources are needed for state services, do so by eliminating spending that’s not essential to improving outcomes. Kansas spent 36 percent more per-resident in 2016 than the states without an income tax, so it’s clear there are opportunities to reduce costs. Kansas spent over $1 billion last year on fees for services, and the majority is classified as ‘other’ or ‘miscellaneous.’ $64 million was spent on ‘other’ contractual services; $22 million on dues and subscriptions; $45 million on travel; $97 million on rent; $57 million on communications. Expenditures like these are rarely examined for effectiveness and efficiency, but they should be.
Hyper-partisanship and other barriers to civil, robust debate must be set aside so we can focus on viable solutions.
Dave Trabert is president of the Kansas Policy Institute.