Gov. Sam Brownback and other Kansas leaders must face reality in 2015

Election returns were good news for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, but devastating budget numbers came soon after.
Election returns were good news for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, but devastating budget numbers came soon after. The Wichita Eagle

Forced on the defensive in a close re-election campaign because of his expensive tax cuts, lackluster job growth and warnings of a looming financial crisis, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback still insisted the state was headed in the right direction.

“The sun is shining on Kansas,” he said. “And don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Six days after the election, someone did. With authority.

A group of state government officials and university economists released the latest consensus revenue estimate, an updated projection of how much the state can expect to receive in tax receipts and other income to meet its budgeted expenses.

The news was even worse than Brownback’s critics had suggested during the campaign. Bottom line: Kansas finances are in such bad shape the state will collect $1 billion less in revenues this budget year and the next than its projected expenditures.

That sets the stage for perhaps the state’s most significant legislative session in years.

Conservative Republicans — in many cases, the same politicians who voted for aggressive tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 — remain in power in Topeka. They, along with a diminishing number of Democrats and moderate Republicans, will have to decide what they want the future of Kansas to be.

In the best-case scenario, they will show the wisdom and grace to acknowledge that a state cannot deprive itself of financial oxygen and still expect to thrive. They will roll back some of the tax cuts.

In a worst-case scenario, they will continue to listen to the same hucksters who helped lead Kansas to this abyss, and who irrationally insist that grabbing reserve funds from school districts and universities, raiding the highway fund and tampering with the pension system will restore the state to fiscal health. These people are in willful denial.

The latest reliable financial projections show that if they don’t increase revenues by retracting some of the tax cuts, lawmakers will have to cut $648 million to achieve a balanced budget for 2016 — about 10 percent of the state’s general budget. That’s a number that will cost teachers and other state workers their jobs, leave the state’s infrastructure to deteriorate, and rob the dreams of college students with unaffordable tuition.

The problem isn’t just that so much must be cut. Kansas’ self-inflicted starvation diet has deprived it of the ability to invest in its citizens and the state’s future. Leaders can’t devise creative ways to encourage job training, help mentally ill individuals, boost universities into the top tier or recruit new industries when all of the money and energy is bottled up in a desperate survival mentality.

Other states are taking advantage of a rising economy and more sensible tax policies to seek excellence in their schools and higher education networks and make their communities more attractive for citizens and businesses. The tax cuts that Brownback promised would bring growth and prosperity to Kansas are instead causing it to lag far behind.

The eyes of the nation remain on Kansas, which has become a case study of how not to carry out economic policy. Reversing some of the tax cuts would be painful and embarrassing for the governor and legislators. But allowing the state to fail in the national spotlight would be much, much worse.

This is the fourth of a five-part series on major issues that will ignore the calendar year’s end and demand attention again in 2015.