A fiddledeedee attitude in Kansas on the budget

01/25/2014 5:00 PM

01/25/2014 6:20 PM

Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” said, “Fiddledeedee. I won’t think about it now. I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I can stand it.”

We could be talking about the citizens of Detroit, who looked the other way as a financial calamity was building up.

But we’re not talking about Detroit. We are talking about Kansas.

Poor Duane Goossen, who was Kansas budget director from 1998 to 2010, is trying — in his nonhysterical manner — to warn Kansans that the state is spending each year more than it is taking in, to the tune of about $100 million and growing. And the day of reckoning is coming.

The problem for Goossen and for all others who clearly see the future unfolding is that the state has a surplus of nearly $600 million, saved up during the economic recovery and as a result of a temporary one-cent sales tax increase.

So Kansas can keep draining the reserves to plug the annual deficits until the rubber hits the road, in about 2017.

Goossen dryly says in budget director talk: “The revenue stream is not adequate to support state programs. Because of the bank balance, it works only temporarily.”

The reason for this deficit spending is undeniable. Last year, the Legislature and governor of Kansas approved massive income tax cuts and tax holidays for many businesses.

To be sure, spending was cut as well. But spending was not cut enough to offset the lost revenues. As tightfisted as they are, the Legislature and governor couldn’t come up with enough in expense cuts to pay for their tax cuts.

So Goossen raises a fair question. If expenses could not be cut enough to avoid the deficit spending, how will the state get out of this jam?

One way, according to Gov. Sam Brownback, is for the Kansas economy to get a major jolt of adrenaline from the tax cuts.

The problem with that scenario, said Goossen, is that the Legislature passed a provision that if state revenues increased by more than 2 percent, further tax cuts would kick in.

That Catch-22 means that by 2017, either expenses will have been decimated — my words, not Goossen’s — or tax cuts will have to be reversed.

And all of this does not take into consideration the likelihood that the Kansas Supreme Court will order the state to increase spending on schools by hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We need to make spending and revenue balance,” Goossen said.

He points out that half the budget is spent on K-12 education, about 13 percent goes to higher education and the remainder goes to human services.

“How much more room is there to cut?” Goossen asked.

Even the attempts to reduce Medicaid spending by privatizing the program under KanCare do not save money, Goossen points out. It will only mean less of an increase in spending. Those costs will continue to go up, he said.

Goossen understands this is all very complicated, and the ramifications are too far away. That is why, he said, it is difficult to rouse audiences when he speaks on this issue.

Many share his frustration.

The state is digging itself into a cavernous hole, and no one seems to care.

It just is virtually impossible to convince Scarlett that she has to start thinking today about what looms tomorrow.

Fiddledeedee.

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