The award for ‘Most Irresponsible Budget’ goes to Kansas lawmakers

Highway supporters are properly outraged at Gov. Sam Brownback’s planned diversion of Kansas road improvement funds.
Highway supporters are properly outraged at Gov. Sam Brownback’s planned diversion of Kansas road improvement funds. AP

When Gov. Sam Brownback essentially tells GOP lawmakers to “Pass an irresponsible state budget that harms public services for Kansans,” too many have offered a ready-made feeble response the last four years.

Sure enough. Got it. Right away.

It happened again under the cover of darkness Monday, as the House (1:05 a.m.) and Senate (3:18 a.m.) narrowly approved an unbalanced budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

The dreary facts didn’t change much during the debate, which featured ferocious and proper attacks by Democrats on the sad state of financial affairs.

We cannot continue to play this shell game,” said Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia.

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Whoops. Longbine’s actually a Republican, who appears really upset with how things have worked out since Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts began decimating state revenues by more than $600 million a year.

Still, Longbine voted for the budget, as did too many other weak-kneed Republicans. They have awakened to the fact that the tax cuts have not spurred a surge in jobs or revenue from other sources. They just aren’t prepared to stand up to Brownback’s bullying ways and do what’s right for the people of Kansas.

Other observations from the ongoing budget debacle:

Cut, cut, cut and delay

The budget slashes $115 million from next year’s highway improvement funding, combined with an additional $70 million cut from this year’s budget.

Funding for state universities and colleges falls by 3 percent, or almost $18 million — on top of a similar reduction Brownback announced earlier.

And the state gets to delay a payment of almost $100 million into its pension fund, to be paid back in 2018. Pinky promise.

Despite all that, the Legislature refused to do its constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget and will allow Brownback to make even more trims.

The results are disheartening.

Twenty-five highway projects will be delayed, reducing the safety of roads.

Higher educational institutions will be in a weaker financial position.

State services from other departments will be reduced.

And tens of thousands of public employees just became a little more worried about the security of their retirement plans. Note that they must continue paying their pension contributions, unlike the state, over the next two years.

Kansas revenue shortfalls

On Monday, the Kansas Department of Revenue happily announced that April revenues had come in a few million dollars over expectations.

Don’t pop the Champagne corks yet.

True, Kansas in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year is $124 million ahead of receipts for the same period in 2015. But that’s not surprising: The Republican-dominated Legislature that’s always crowing about how it wants to let Kansans “keep more money in your pocket” passed the largest tax increase in state history in 2015.

As House Speaker Ray Merrick and others celebrate the “we’re ahead of last year” nonsense, here are the sobering facts Kansans need to know.

Through April, the Sunflower State is $235 million below what it had collected in total taxes at the same point in the 2011-12 fiscal year. And receipts are an astonishing $420 million below what they were in the 2012-2013 year.

Then came the dramatic, absurd income tax cuts. Kansas revenues actually are still far below what they once were — no matter the claptrap you hear from the Brownback and GOP camps.

Long on hope, short on facts

Republicans kept repeating a few of their favorite soothing statements Sunday night into early Monday.

One was that the new budget would have a surplus of about $80 million. What a hoot. Kansas revenue estimates have been off by hundreds of millions of dollars the last few years.

Another piece of potential fiction: We’re protecting K-12 education with this budget.

Not if the Kansas Supreme Court, after a hearing next week, orders the Legislature to spend more money on this crucial service. Where’s that money coming from in a cash-starved state that, on purpose, refuses to set up a rainy day fund even after blowing through $700 million in savings the last few years?

Finally, the Legislature voted last week to keep the costly income tax cuts for 330,000 businesses and farmers. Not because the lawmakers had any facts to base that decision on. Even many ardent Republicans realize it’s been an amazingly stupid deal to back.

But 2016 is an election year, and too many GOP members want to curry favor with beneficiaries of the tax breaks. (And some moderate GOP members balked at getting rid of the cuts because that didn’t go far enough to balance the budget.)

An oblivious Brownback

Republicans expect the governor to sign the budget he sent them.

He likely will, even if he makes small changes. He’s already expressed support for funding reductions for roads, higher education and other state agencies, and for holding back the pension payment.

He will protect the tax cuts for 330,000 businesses and farmers at all costs — no matter how many other regressive taxes and fees must be raised to pay for that ill-fated decision.

Kansas is deeply in the red ink and still sinking, despite the constant delusional talk from Brownback and other legislators.

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