Public schools in Kansas have, so far, dodged all the budget-cutting bullets.
But not this time.
A consensus is building in Topeka that this year there will be no choice but to give the schools a 2 to 3 percent haircut to help offset an $850 million deficit between now and July 2018. That one move would save the state up to $128 million a year.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats who campaigned on saving schools from cuts did not know the reality hitting two days after the November election. Estimates of a possible small surplus for this fiscal year imploded. The new numbers shocked everyone.
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A deficit of $350 million suddenly was projected for the remaining five months of this year, and next year, an additional $500 million deficit is expected.
The Legislature is boxed in. With time running out on this fiscal year, there is no way to cut enough expenses or raise enough taxes to do the job.
Well-placed sources tell me the governor’s proposal to use only one-time fixes to avoid school cuts is off the table. No one is interested in selling future tobacco settlement money.
And no one supports skipping another contribution to the state’s retirement fund. The one-time money sources run out within two years, just as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback leaves office.
There may be a willingness to borrow more than $300 million from the state’s long-term investment fund — also known as the unclaimed property fund — for seven years, to be paid back at a rate of $45 million a year.
That internal loan and school cuts would get the state through this year and start chipping away at next year’s deficit.
There is one other option for raising more money right now. Legislators are coalescing around revoking the tax exemptions for 330,000 businesses. That move saves $250 million over a 12-month period.
This is Brownback’s legacy achievement, and it is going down in flames.
The other choices are grim.
To balance this year’s budget with cuts alone would require a nearly 7 percent across-the-board slashing of spending on schools, universities, social services, corrections, virtually everything the state controls.
It would be an Armageddon budget that nobody is willing to live with. Schools alone would face a $219 million draconian cut.
That would mean devastating cuts for each major school district in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Higher education would be slammed with $53 million in cuts.
To try to balance the budget with tax increases alone would be nearly impossible. It is too late in this fiscal year to raise enough revenue to have any discernible impact on the budget. Acceptable tax hikes alone would not plug the two-year deficit.
The bottom line is, moderates and conservatives are approaching a compromise.
Moderates might be willing to implement modest school cuts, if conservatives would agree to a true, structural change in future budgets. That is shorthand for insisting there be tax hikes — rather than simply more cuts — to balance future budgets.
Every state agency and program has taken cuts since 2014. But not schools, which comprise 50 percent of the state’s budget. That’s why they must take their turn with a modest cut.
Those of us whose top priority for state spending is schools shudder at the idea of such cuts. But the realities are so dismal, this must be considered.
The wild card, though, is the Kansas Supreme Court. What will the justices say about school funding? If the Legislature shows good faith in raising school funding over time and works toward a new finance formula, will the high court go along?
The Supreme Court’s decision could knock the Legislature back to square one, or it could give lawmakers breathing room to correct their irresponsible ways.