Steve Rose

Tornadic budget cuts are whirling toward Kansas, and the consequences are unclear

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback made his victory speech on Nov. 4. Six days later, a new report showed how the state’s fiscal crisis he helped create likely will get worse in the future.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback made his victory speech on Nov. 4. Six days later, a new report showed how the state’s fiscal crisis he helped create likely will get worse in the future. THE KANSAS CITY STAR

In a perverse way, watching the impending financial disaster unfold in Kansas is captivating. It’s like watching in awe as a tornado drops from the sky. It is frightening, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

So, the experts last week have spoken, and they have concluded Kansas faces a $1 billion shortfall out of an approximate $6 billion annual budget, over the next couple of years. This nonpartisan group includes members of Gov. Sam Brownback’s own staff, so the books are not cooked.

I, for one, cannot wait to see how the Legislature and governor deal with this catastrophe.

Until now, particularly before the recent elections, we were assured that this kind of deficit would not happen, even with massive tax cuts. We were told we did not have a revenue problem because we would grow our way out of it.

The election is now over, and we are hearing something completely different.

As Johnson County’s own Ray Merrick, speaker of the House, put it, when those frightful numbers came in: “We don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”

The governor and his staff today are no longer talking about a shot of adrenalin from the tax cuts. Today, they are singing a different tune — one of austerity.

They are telling Kansans we must live within our means, just as families do every day.

Is this some kind of bait-and-switch? Yesterday, we were told not to worry, that we will boom our way out of this hole. Today, we are told to learn to live within that hole.

A lot of promises cannot possibly be kept if Kansas cuts its way to a balanced budget.

Brownback has promised it will be hands-off of kindergarten through 12th-grade education.

Yet, according to experts like Duane Goossen, former longtime Kansas secretary of administration as well as state budget director under Republican and Democratic administrations, there is no way to deal with a deficit of this magnitude without cuts in public education.

If public education is off limits, and Medicaid (20 percent of the budget) cannot be touched, that means there would need to be a 15 percent cut across the board to all remaining budget items, according to Goossen.

If Brownback and the Legislature can really tackle a billion-dollar shortfall without touching half the current state’s budget — public school expenditures — that will be a sight to behold.

You can take this to the bank. There is not enough “waste and inefficiencies” in state government to eliminate the deficit. Already, there have been significant cuts in state spending, including a sharp reduction of the state’s personnel.

No, the key to balancing the budget will be to cut into the bone, and it will be painful.

There are those in Kansas who are giddy at the idea of making up a billion-dollar deficit by “living within our means.”

To them — and I am including the think tank Kansas Policy Institute, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the vast majority of legislators and the governor himself — this is a rare opportunity to take out the spreadsheets and just start whacking away at numbers with little regard for the consequences.

It is too early to make predictions about future elections, but it is not too soon to conjecture that there may be some serious buyer’s remorse when the number crunching turns into real, live gut-wrenching pain.

The pendulum may have swung so far that there may be a serious backlash. It is too early to say for certain because Kansans have not seen, felt or suffered from the impending cuts.

“Living within our means” has a nice ring to it. It even sounds like a worthwhile challenge.

But just wait.

Few families have had to downsize like Kansas will.

We shall see how the Legislature lives within its means without raising taxes. This tornado is an F-5 monster coming our way.

Reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, at srose@kc.rr.com.

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