Barbara Shelly

April 10, 2014

Up in the sky! It’s reality, untethered in Kansas

Kansas is in deep fiscal trouble. “We are flat broke,” said Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, the ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. So how are the Republicans in charge responding to this crisis? By giving money away, of course.

There’s a kind of well-known story that begins and ends in Kansas and includes a hot-air balloon drifting into the atmosphere with a huckster wizard on board.

Ladies and gentlemen, look skyward. You may catch a glimpse of another untethered balloon aircraft.

Its cargo is reality, taken flight. And the hot air? That’s courtesy of Gov. Sam Brownback and your Kansas legislators.

You won’t hear this from the governor or the conservative Republicans who control the Legislature, but Kansas is in deep fiscal trouble. Since steep income tax cuts took effect, it can balance its budget only by using up reserves and raiding designated accounts, like the highway fund. The reserves are due to run out in 2016.

“We are flat broke,” said Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, the ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

So how are the people in charge handling the crisis? By giving money away.

After a weekend of late-night sessions that some members have likened to psychological torture, the Legislature passed an education financing bill on Sunday night. The thing is so complex even the experts are still trying to figure it out. But we know it includes a tax credit for corporate donors who wish to contribute to scholarship funds so that certain low-income students can attend private schools.

For every dollar donated, benefactors will be able to deduct 70 cents from their state income tax payments. That’s a huge tax break for a state that had to turn every pocket inside out to find enough money to fund its schools at a constitutionally acceptable level and still faces legal challenges on whether it is actually doing so.

Lawmakers approved the tax credit without a reliable estimate of how much it might cost. At the same time, they cut more than $8 million for at-risk students who remain in public schools.

“We have made a value statement that we would prefer to give companies tax credits as opposed to helping at-risk students,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway who didn’t vote for the bill. “It’s obscene.”

The tax credit wasn’t even the first giveaway of the week.

A few days earlier, the Kansas Senate approved a bill granting property tax exemptions to all of the state’s gyms and health clubs. If the measure somehow gets through the House, it will cost the state about $4 million a year, with cash-strapped local governments and school districts taking a significant separate hit.

A health club owner in Wichita, Rodney Steven II, has been whining to lawmakers for years about having to pay taxes when YMCAs and municipally owned gyms are exempt. Never mind that those places serve the community in ways that your typical private workout facility does not.

The debate about the tax break centered on fairness. “I think it is a shame a taxpayer has to expend so many resources to try to get tax fairness,” Republican Sen. Jeff Melcher of Leawood said, when the subject of Steven’s generous campaign contributions came up.

Besides being possibly the dumbest sentence uttered in the Capitol this session, Melcher’s remark and others along that line completely miss the point. Kansas is broke. Life isn’t fair, and legislators can’t afford to make it so.

Lawmakers have spent the session fretting about same-sex weddings and renewable energy requirements and (briefly) surrogate parenting — everything except the ticking time bomb in their midst.

Optimists cling to the happy thought that February revenue came in nicely above expectations, choosing to overlook the explanation that a big chunk of the overage came from several one-time tax payments that were overdue from previous years.

Brownback, for his part, continues to insist that everything is fine, just fine.

And, who knows, maybe it will turn out that way. Maybe the wizard will touch down in Topeka and set everything right.

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