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Burdett Loomis: The ‘crisis’ excuse

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste…. It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” – former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel

In American politics, major policy change comes in two ways. First, your party can capture the legislative and executive levers of power, with majorities producing a new policy direction.

This occurred in 2012, when Kansas Republican majorities enacted radical reductions in the Kansas income tax structure, both across the board and especially for almost 200,000 small businesses and individual proprietorships. Kansans voted, and elected officials responded with a sharp change in policy.

A second cause of major change comes with the onset of a crisis, such as the Depression or Sept. 11, which generates wholesale policy changes that would have likely proved impossible in ordinary circumstances. When a crisis appears, policymakers often respond not with agenda items that directly address the situation; rather, they resuscitate pet proposals that previously could gain little political traction.

Thus the Sept. 11 tragedy produced, above all, a mishmash of law enforcement policies and the creation of the huge and unproductive Department of Homeland Security.

In Kansas, the governor and the Legislature face a real crisis: the collapse of state revenues in the wake of the 2012 tax cuts. Unlike Sept. 11 or the Depression, this crisis is self-imposed; indeed, it flows directly from Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax-cutting agenda.

And despite many expressions of cheery sentiments, the cold fact is that Kansas must find a way to live within a general fund budget that will decrease by 11 percent or so in the next 18 months. Predictably, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, sees no revenue problem, just a spending problem, although it’s unclear where the cuts will come from.

For others, however, Rahm Emanuel’s words ring true: It’s time to trot out various ideas that heretofore have found precious little support.

Exhibit A is the idea that the state’s school-finance formula should be thoroughly revised. This was a nonstarter for Brownback in 2011, but the 2015 budget crisis gives this initiative new legs. Brownback noted: “We ought to just open the whole thing up. It’s just that the formula has grown very complex, convoluted (and) questionable.... You ought to open it up, redo it and sunset it in four years so you’re having a regular discussion about where half of your state general fund goes.”

In many ways, the governor is right, but unstated here is the intense dislike by many Republicans of a system that equalizes spending across the state, based on a host of categories. Last week’s Gannon decision on school funding has upped the ante. Not only will the formula likely be rewritten, but the Legislature might well put forward a constitutional amendment to revise the wording that requires equalization.

In addition, the tax-revenue decline has opened the doors to reconsideration of the venerable – and so far discredited – proposal to replace the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, a fixed-benefit retirement plan, with a fixed contribution, IRA-like plan, at least for future beneficiaries. State government has long underfunded KPERS, and such a change would dramatically change the state’s role, despite not resolving current shortfalls.

Other issues, such as limiting the scope of teachers’ negotiations with school districts and further privatization of social welfare services, might also surface, all within the “crisis” context.

Many of these issues deserve serious consideration. But let’s be clear why they are on the 2015 agenda. The post-2010 Republican majority created a major budget and revenue crisis. And now this same majority can reintroduce its favored policies, arguing that they are absolutely essential to react to a crisis that “no one could have anticipated.”

Emanuel would be proud.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.