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Faulty figures

Published on -2/20/2013, 10:52 AM

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Credit Steve Anderson, Gov. Sam Brownback's budget director, for Monday's apology for a whopper of a claim that state spending has dropped nearly $2 billion since 2010. But that leaves other suspect numbers being used by the administration -- and worries the governor's legislative allies will think nothing of passing laws based on them.

A chart that Brownback has used in presentations across the state, and shared with the Wichita Eagle editorial board in a meeting last month, said state spending had peaked at $16 billion under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson in 2010 when it actually was $14.04 billion.

Rather than representing the "first bending down of the cost curve in 40 years for the state," as Brownback characterized it to the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce in December, state spending actually rose between 2010 and 2011 before dipping in 2012 to a level still above that when Parkinson left office.

It's hard to believe such a big, bogus number could masquerade as fact until the Eagle's Dion Lefler challenged it, leading to Anderson's acknowledgment "we should have caught the incorrect information, but we did not."

Anderson's public apology to the governor and Kansans didn't address the other issues Lefler explored -- why Brownback has said, including in his state of the state speech, only 54 percent of school funding is reaching the classroom and "total spending averages more than $12,600 per student per year."

The 54 percent figure is not what the state and federal education departments consider to be accurate, though Brownback told the editorial board his number came from the state education department. The real number is actually 61.9 percent, and Kansas was ranked 12th in the nation in 2010 for the share of school spending going to instruction. The $12,600-per-pupil number is similarly problematic, stemming from a 2011 law that required the state Education Department to include capital and bond funds; the per-pupil amount the department reported to the census for 2012 was $10,396.

The Brownback administration's numbers have come into question on other issues, too, including how merging the Kansas Turnpike Authority and the state Transportation Department would save $30 million over two years and how privatizing Medicaid will save $1 billion during five years. Of course, many also would say his calculation that deep income-tax cuts won't wreck the state budget is a case of fuzzy math.

Plus, Brownback has said "29 percent of Kansas fourth-graders can't read at a basic level." That's a misuse of the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey, in which Kansas actually ranked 10th best in the nation. The better measure is the state assessment, which found 10.1 percent of fourth-graders failed to meet the state standard in reading that year.

What's going on here is clear: Brownback is embracing and repeating numbers that help promote his agenda, including what he sees as the need to push back against a court order for more state funding of public schools.

But Kansans need to trust that what they hear from their governor, especially again and again, is rooted in truth, not cherry-picked, spun or flat wrong.

Editorial by the Wichita Eagle

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