As he ran for re-election last year, Gov. Sam Brownback brushed aside critics of his fiscal policies and proclaimed “the sun is shining in Kansas.”
On Friday, the latest full eclipse of that sun occurred when state officials slashed revenue projections by a total of $350 million over the next two years and cut $120 million in spending this year.
They conceded that the state budget is running on fumes. Kansas could have a puny $5.6 million in cash reserves at the end of the current fiscal year. Because of poor leadership by Brownback and Republican lawmakers, the state wasn’t prepared for this financial emergency. It already had one of the worst reserve funds in America, according to the 2015 Fiscal Survey of States.
And one more thing: State officials said Friday that even more budget reductions could be ahead if tax revenues don’t pick up.
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The good news? Budget director Shawn Sullivan boasted that Brownback would not touch educational funding in the latest round of budget cuts.
But even this comes with a huge asterisk. On Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving school districts that are seeking millions of dollars in additional state aid. They argue that the new school financing program put in place this year by Brownback and the Legislature is unconstitutional. A lower court already has agreed.
None of the dire budget news was delivered by Brownback. That’s too bad. It would be good for Kansans to see him step forward to take some responsibility for the mess he created with income tax cuts that allow thousands of businesses to avoid paying taxes.
Don’t lose sight of the sobering fact that the latest woes come just months after Brownback and the Legislature passed the largest tax increase package in state history. It included a rise in the state sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent. However, sales tax revenues have fallen $34 million short of expectations in the first four months of this fiscal year.
Perhaps the biggest loser Friday was the Kansas Department of Transportation, which will be socked with 40 percent of the budget cuts because $50 million of its revenues will be funneled to the general fund. That’s on top of several hundred million dollars already being diverted to help balance the state budget.
Sullivan’s assurances that this won’t hurt current projects seem questionable, and it’s far more likely that the future of crucial road and bridge projects will be adversely affected.
The Children’s Initiative Fund, which supports early childhood programs, could lose $9 million. Again, Sullivan downplayed any consequences, but the fund’s supporters should have a chance to state their concerns before any money is moved.
Speaking for the small ranks of Kansas Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka had an obvious reaction: “There’s no question we have to go back into the 2012 and 2013 income tax cuts if we’re going to have any stability in the budget.”
Yes, that’s the best and most drastically needed step. Unfortunately, Brownback recently insisted he would not rescind his unfair tax plan. The Legislature will have to push hard in the opposite direction early in the 2016 session.
Until that happens, the sun will continue to sink on the state’s future.