The onset of another legislative session is reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over until he learns an important lesson. The 2012 Legislature passed historic income tax reform at the end of the session, but instead of coming back in 2013 to finish the job with spending adjustments, lawmakers raised taxes and spending.
The 2014 session brought a small spending reduction, but taxes were increased again in 2015 (the largest increase in state history) and spending set a new record. Now the 2016 Legislature is facing more potential deficits and, once again, will have to decide whether to adjust spending or increase taxes.
The resolution is simple but politically charged. Kansas has a spending problem, but as one legislator said last year, they would all lose their jobs if they reduced spending. That may be true if legislators dramatically cut services, but no one is proposing to do so. The real issue is whether the governor and majority of legislators will force government to provide the same or better quality services at a better price.
And if they do, they would probably keep their jobs, because the majority of Kansans think state government is pretty inefficient. A recent statewide poll conducted by SurveyUSA (on behalf of Kansas Policy Institute) found that only 25 percent of Kansans agree that state government operates efficiently and makes good use of their tax dollars, while 69 percent disagree. That sentiment crosses all geographical and ideological boundaries.
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Kansas doesn’t have a revenue problem; even after 2014 tax revenue dropped following full implementation of tax reform, it was still 28 percent higher than in 2004 and ahead of the 10-year inflation track. But spending is out of control. If general fund spending had increased for inflation over the past 20 years, it would have been $1.2 billion less last year.
Budget and economic issues will persist until wasteful spending is eliminated. Fortunately, the results of an independent efficiency study will help show the way. Results of the Alvarez & Marsal study will be formally introduced later this month and hopefully will contain many good opportunities.
Each recommendation should be carefully examined, but legislators must either control spending or increase taxes. One cannot say he opposes tax increases while refusing to support every effort to avoid tax increases.
Citizens clearly want government to use their money efficiently, but the vast majority believe government doesn’t operate efficiently, and there is ample evidence to support their position. So it will be interesting to see if the majority of legislators side with taxpayers – or if the 2016 session will be yet another installment of “Groundhog Day.”
Dave Trabert of Overland Park is president of the Kansas Policy Institute.