An ugly, dark cloud just blotted out the sun that Gov. Sam Brownback so often cheerfully claims is shining in Kansas.
Welcome to the world where reality trumps campaign metaphors.
On Monday, just six days after Brownback narrowly won re-election, state officials and university economists released new general fund revenue estimates.
The upshot: State officials face the daunting challenge of having to slash the current budget and next year’s by more than $700 million.
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That’s a direct threat to funding that many thousands of Kansans rely on to provide solid school systems for their children, modern roads to drive on and safety-net services to care for the less fortunate.
The financial hole that Kansas has dug itself is deeper than even some Brownback critics thought it would be because the costly tax cuts he and the Legislature approved are creating far less revenue than once predicted.
By Tuesday, the stark choices ahead were beginning to form.
Will Brownback act on his own and make “allotment cuts” that would carve into the programs he puts in the bull’s-eye to balance the budget? That would show real leadership but also should require Brownback to start a news conference with a great big apology to the people of Kansas.
Starting in January, what kind of plan will state legislators put together?
And then there’s the most important question of all: Which public services will be cut?
K-12 education and Medicaid in Kansas account for 70 percent of general fund spending. Yet Brownback just got off the campaign trail where he championed himself as a defender of education. It would be the height of hypocrisy to take the knife to it. Meanwhile, Medicaid spending is pretty much on autopilot, as another troubled Brownback experiment, called KanCare, tries to serve 360,000 Kansans.
The state could further drain its transportation fund. But that one-time answer would curtail the ability to build and maintain decent roads. Kansas officials also could slice dollars from programs that provide crucial mental health, foster care and other social services. All are unappealing options.
The new dire fiscal estimates did seem to awaken some who had been caught up in the ultra-conservative dream that starving government is good for the people.
Senate President Susan Wagle said, “We will evaluate both the tax and spending side of the ledger” to balance the budget. State Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, indicated he could support slowing scheduled income-tax reductions.
Actually, stopping them in their tracks is the correct action.
Here are a couple of things Kansans don’t need to hear as the rhetoric heats up.
Brownback’s team and others already have trotted out the timeworn statement that the state has to “live within its means just like Kansas families do.” Well, most families are smart enough not to gamble their futures away on untested schemes when the bills are piling up. Their government’s failure to show the same good sense is looking like a tragedy.
And lawmakers and conservative groups can stop blustering that Kansas has a spending problem. It doesn’t. Whatever bad habits the state may have had in that regard were cured by the Great Recession. Nearly every aspect of government was cut back to the essentials.
Brownback owns this fiscal ditch, and Kansans will have to live with deep cuts to government, which in turn harms the state’s economy. People lose jobs and spending power. That’s partly why forecasters envision anemic growth for another year.
That’s another way of saying the worst fiscal problems — and their dreaded effects on Kansans — are still be ahead.