Watching lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri deal with budgeting is like watching a car careening down a dangerous mountain pass late at night.
And it’s snowing.
And the car lights aren’t working.
In other words, budget-making is fraught with peril and focused only on the here and now. It’s all about quick decisions and surviving the moment. Nothing else matters.
This looms as an increasingly large problem in Topeka and Jefferson City, where dealing with current-year budget deficits has sucked all the focus and energy from under the domes. Lost is any substantive dialogue about the type of states lawmakers envision, the type of highway program or public school system they aspire to create.
Hardly anyone has time to fret over the fact that decisions today to delay pension or highway repair payments might wind up costing more tomorrow. We constantly crow about the federal budget deficit. What about Kansas debt surging by $2 billion since 2010?
Priorities one through 100 are all about balancing budgets that remain way out of whack, and those are fights that will endure until lawmakers mercifully adjourn for another year, only to come back and do it all over again the next.
That much of the pain was needlessly self-inflicted hardly matters.
“The question should be: What should we be investing in to position ourselves for the next decade and beyond?” said Duane Goossen, a former Kansas budget director.
In Kansas, the Republican-led Legislature faces the distasteful prospect of raising taxes to escape a budget hole that has grown to $1 billion.
In fairness to Gov. Sam Brownback, he had a vision of a state free of income taxes. Problem is, that vision has crashed and burned, and now lawmakers are scrambling to find a way out.
Fortunately, Republican leaders have one thing going for them: This happens to be a non-election year, when tough solutions can be forged long before voters head back to the polls.
But that idea didn’t prove to be of much help this week when a multi-pronged budget deal imploded in the state Senate. The issue that shut everything down: a proposed cut of $120 million from public schools.
Whatever happened to the GOP’s long-standing mantra that business and government deserve stable and predictable budget cycles that enable leaders to make long-term plans?
The only thing predictable in Kansas these days is unpredictability.
Budget-cutting is also job one in Missouri, which faces glaring needs. Fortunately, it doesn’t face the same out-sized deficits as Kansas.
Gov. Eric Greitens already has announced $572 million in cuts, and Republicans are placing much of the blame on the $107 million jump in funding Medicaid. Overlooked is the impact of recent moves to slash corporate and personal income taxes. Those cuts led to a decline of $155 million in corporate tax revenue in fiscal 2016. This year, the first income tax cut in Missouri in decades might also kick in.
Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who was gearing up for a statewide run in 2016, was involved in both issues, and that brings up a point.
Term limits in Missouri only exacerbate the state’s short-sightedness. Lawmakers eager to advance in politics push costly proposals, but they often aren’t around to deal with consequences because they’re out of office.
No wonder long-term planning is out the window.