Mismanagement and chronic fiscal problems in Kansas are eroding the state’s ability to serve the public.
The situation is no longer one of short-term budget pain, as states typically experience in a recession. The financial problems are severe and deep-seated. They are pushing officials to make decisions that will harm Kansas and its citizens well into the future.
Misplaced priorities and poor leadership make matters worse. Some legislators say they are alarmed by turnover in crucial state agencies. Many capable employees have departed, leaving those in place often unable to deal with the crises that are arising with increasing frequency.
Conservative Republicans in the Legislature, who pushed for the deep income tax cuts at the heart of the dysfunction, are fond of saying that government needs to be run more like a business.
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But in fact no business could get away with failing as spectacularly as Kansas has. The management team would be shown the door, something Kansas voters failed to do when they narrowly re-elected Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014.
Voters will have opportunities to turn over many legislative seats in elections later this year. It is crucial to recruit and elect candidates who will help reverse the damage of recent years.
Without a dramatic correction, the state will continue to spiral downward. Here we highlight a few of the areas of concern.
Road to ruin?
The raids on the state’s transportation fund in order to pay other bills are well known. Brownback and the Legislature have plundered $1.4 billion from the Kansas Department of Transportation over six years.
But now the state is engaging in even riskier practices. A little-noticed provision slipped into the budget last year opened a window for unlimited borrowing of highway construction bonds. KDOT quickly issued a record $400 million in bonds in December.
The bond rating agency Fitch reported that highway officials had disclosed that “the increase is partly tied to the state’s plan to transfer additional funds to the state’s General Fund,” meaning the administration is borrowing to funnel money through KDOT for other expenses.
Even more irresponsible is the structure of the bond issue, which requires the state to pay only interest for 10 years and begin paying off the principal after that.
KDOT Secretary Mike King told lawmakers the state will have finished paying on other bonds in 10 years time. But Kansas has rarely taken such risks in the past.
The increased borrowing isn’t reflected in highway work. While its schedule calls for repairing 1,200 miles of roads a year, the state this year is fixing only 200 miles. At that rate it won’t take long for Kansas roads to fall into serious disrepair.
In a move that has legislators from both parties seething, Brownback’s administration last month signed a $20 million lease-purchase agreement with Bank of America to construct a new state power plant in Topeka. Never before has Kansas turned to a lease-purchase agreement to finance long-term debt.
Lawmakers weren’t consulted about the deal, which will put the cash-strapped state on the hook for $1.32 million in annual payments through 2031. The arrangement will likely require the state to demolish the aging Docking State Office Building, although not all lawmakers want to do that.
The unilaterally arranged lease agreement is typical of Brownback’s imperious management style and his inclination toward budget denial. The state’s projected revenue shortfall through July 2017 could exceed $200 million. This is hardly the time to take on a new long-term debt payment.
But canceling the lease reportedly would cost more than $400,000. So it appears to be a done deal.
The rollout of a new computer system for processing eligibility for Kansas’ privatized Medicare program, KanCare, has become a nightmare.
The system took years longer to build than anticipated, and costs are running about 25 percent over budget.
About 10,000 applications are pending. Advocates for disabled and elderly Kansans say clients are inexplicably being dropped from coverage. They find out they are uninsured when they visit their doctor or try to fill a prescription.
People are complaining of four-hour waits to get someone on the telephone and often no resolution of their issues once they do.
Other states, including Missouri, have experienced technical difficulties as they have upgraded software to comply with changes brought about by the federal health care law and other developments.
But fixing the problems will require money, manpower and expertise. Right now Kansas is short in all of those areas.
Point of no return?
Low pay for employees and disinvestment have created situations where Kansas is actually paying more than it should to provide minimal services.
Kansas once was heralded for offering treatment and services that helped keep former inmates out of prison. But much of that was stopped by budget cuts even before Brownback took office. Now the state pays more to support increased prison populations.
And because Kansas’ salaries are lower than in neighboring states, its prisons are beset with staff shortages that require corrections officers to work overtime at higher rates.
Staff shortages are most acute at the state’s two hospitals for people with severe psychiatric problems. Nurses and support staff at the state hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie work so many extra hours that concerns for staff and patient safety are well founded.
Because of security breaches at Osawatomie, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cut off Medicare payments for patients. The state must now pick up the cost, about $600,000 a month.
“It is possible to cut past the point of efficiency and create costly problems,” said Kansas Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway. “It’s my belief that we’re there.”
Indeed, there is no other valid conclusion. Services are breaking down in Kansas, and the longer the financial and management ineptitude continue, the harder it will be to restore them.