Guest Commentary

Mark Peterson: Kansas’ budget problems are now reality

It’s time for the Legislature to address problems with the state’s budget — and voters have taken notice, writes guest columnist Mark Peterson.
It’s time for the Legislature to address problems with the state’s budget — and voters have taken notice, writes guest columnist Mark Peterson. The Wichita Eagle

Dear Kansans, it’s going to take continued effort and attention from you to complete the changes in school finance, taxation and state budgeting you demanded last November. A great place to begin the work is to read your newspaper. It might help to ignore the adjectives and adverbs in the headlines, but by all means do read the paper — regularly. And try to read some of the internet newsletters and blogs that the various interest groups put out during the legislative session. Clear and complete information is always key to knowing what’s underway in Topeka.

At the start of any legislative session there’s lots of outrage, anger, shock, condemnation and claims of surprise, but this year underneath the WAR DECLARED sized headlines there are tales of diligence, attention and commitment that should encourage believers in the will of the people. By March or April we’ll know much more as editors and reporters give serious attention to unglamorous but necessary changes in programs, spending and taxation. Voters have an obligation to pay attention.

On school finance, reality is dawning. The “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state” is going to cost more than has been appropriated for the last several years. All sides of the debate anticipate the state Supreme Court finding that a funding deficiency continues. The participants in the “what comes next?” discussion know that the voters denied the governor’s desire to have a free hand in selecting judicial puppets to help him carry out “starve the beast” educational austerity. With no retention questions for the next four years, the Supreme Court is beyond pressure from this governor.

Kansans need to see the Legislature demonstrate objectivity and willingness to consider the requirements created by the varied economic and demographic differences that exist among the state’s school districts. That can happen if voters continue to stay informed and then remind legislators that they care about the outcome.

Editors, reporters and analysts have demonstrated that the overall budget of the state and its revenue requirements are the other enormous elephants in the room. The 2016 election results show the voters’ altered awareness.

First, voters realized cutting out the top income tax bracket and giving Kansas enterprises a tax holiday provided little economic expansion and insignificant growth in new jobs and payroll. Second, voters clearly accept that there is a gaping hole in the available resources to support the myriad services that the state provides. This new Legislature appears ready to repair the tax system and end the governor’s experiment. A clear majority of the state’s populace and over half of the 330,000 exemption beneficiaries express the opinion that the income and business tax cuts are bad policy. But the pressure has to be maintained.

The current fiscal year’s budget has to be fixed. This is the one spot in the process that can derail the effort to do the big job of re-establishing long-term solvency. If the search for cash, cuts or curtailments to address the immediate shortages becomes the central issue, opponents of the much needed structural repair can prevail through delay and distraction. This must not happen.

So Kansans, stay focused on the real objectives and keep doing what so many did this electoral season. Keep reminding the politicians that we voted for them to do a set of important and specific tasks. Tell them that they are expected to find the necessary fixes, make the necessary compromises, cut the ideological rhetoric and get about the business of putting our state back on the road to solvency and far away from the Laffer Curve.

Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.