Four northwest Kansas representatives joined a group of approximately 50 residents for coffee Saturday morning, opening the mic for questions and comments. The event, hosted by the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, is one of several forums planned throughout the legislative session.
Not surprisingly, much of the nearly two-hour conversation centered around the state of Kansas’ current school funding dilemma and economic outlook. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled this fall state funding for public education is unconstitutional, and former Gov. Sam Brownback — shortly before leaving office to assume a post in the Trump administration — proposed the state phase in $600 million in increased spending in five years.
But there is no plan in place for how to accomplish that, leaving legislators with tough options, said Rep. Leonard Mastroni, R-La Crosse.
“The money we’re talking about for education can affect our general fund. Right now, we’re at about 52 percent of our general fund, and this will raise it up to about 60 percent of our general fund,” he said. “That means that 40 percent is going to be left for our core services. And our core services, a big issue will be our infrastructure. We do need to focus on our roads here pretty quick, because we’ve neglected our roads and that fund has been swept for four or five years now. It’s going to come home pretty soon.”
Kansas Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, elaborated further, noting another 10 percent of the general fund is allocated for higher education, and an estimated 24 percent for health care — which has seen a cost increase of $144 million during a four-year period.
“So at the end of the day, we’ve got 94 percent of this spent before we start the regular function of government: roads, mental health, court systems,” Billinger said. “That’s going to leave 6 percent to fund the rest of the government. That’s the bottom line.”
All legislators noted the state’s revenue is trending upwards following a decision last summer to restore a series of income tax cuts previously implemented. But if the revenue still falls short, it’s been estimated all state agencies might be handed an 18-percent cut in order to meet the education funding requirements and shore up the budget, Billinger said.
“If we do that to Corrections, we’re going to close three prisons and we’re going to let felons on the street. And I don’t think anyone in this room would agree to that,” he said. “Corrections will have to be pulled out. There’s no way we can cut Corrections. So everyone else is looking at maybe 30 percent, and that would be devastating to higher education, mental health, our aging. The choices are tough.”
Mastroni said such a deep cut also would be detrimental to the district court system, as those budgets are almost entirely staff costs.
“The judicial branch of government here is 97 percent employees. Eighteen percent cut would literally shut down our courts for around 90 days,” he said.
Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, expressed optimism the state’s increasing revenues could help meet the demand if a phased-in approach can be implemented for school funding. But he said the state should take advantage of available federal dollars that have been left on the table to increase revenue.
Phelps is an outspoken advocate of Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, and noted the state has missed out on more than $2 billion in funding by refusing to expand the program since 2014.
“We probably wouldn’t even be having these lawsuits and the discussions we’re having now about revenue shortfalls because there would be a considerable amount of money,” Phelps said. “We’re at the point right now we’ve got to look at every source of revenue possible. So when you look at former Gov. Brownback eliminated the funding for the arts, that was something we could do right now. That was a mere $200,000 investment that would draw down $800,000 in federal matching funds. I assure you, out of that amount of money you’d have some jobs and … programs for kids.”
Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, spoke sharply against expanding Medicaid, with Phelps and Mastroni in favor.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions about the (Affordable Care Act). … What’s in it, what’s not. We still don’t know,” Rahjes said. “We need to make sure we have a long-term funding source.”
The legislators all agreed there is not much desire to increase income or property taxes this session, but discussed a few alternate tax options including the possibility of fuel or internet sales tax.
Rahjes said the state is studying the possibility of taxing internet services, but spoke against fuel tax, noting higher fuel costs — especially in rural areas with high rates of commuting — could reduce overall spending and negatively affect the local economy.
Mastroni said he favors the possibility of a slight fuel sales tax, noting those revenues would be a way to set aside dedicated highway funds that could not be swept for other agencies.
The Senate also is considering a bill that would reduce sales tax on food, and similar efforts could be introduced in the House. Rahjes said he favors a proposal that gradually would reduce the tax to zero through time.
“We’d all love to have a reduction in sales tax, but if we’re going to do it, let’s do it. There’s things happening right now in the Legislature, there are members who are ready to go for certain bills to reduce (tax) by a percent, or a penny,” Rahjes said. “Well, that is more of a political game. That wouldn’t give relief to people who need it. That’s the whole thing.”