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Putting lipstick on a pig

Published on -2/2/2014, 2:30 PM

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Rhetoric soared as Gov. Sam Brownback delivered his State of the State address in mid-January, but words could not mask the grim conditions that lie ahead for Kansas as a result of his actions on state finance.

In his address, the governor repeatedly invoked God, as well as "a Big God," embraced abolitionists and anti-abortion protesters as though they were first cousins, and apologized to Native Americans. He shushed Big Government and state court judges. In closing, he boldly declared: "Kansas is leading an American Renaissance."

Brownback was putting lipstick on a pig, for a day later his proposed budget revealed the stark reality of his ill-advised tax cuts and election-year spending in which he tried to place a Band-Aid over his prior cuts in education, higher education and services to vulnerable Kansans.

Last spring, Brownback signed off on state spending that exceeded revenues by $628 million during the five-year period that began last July.

His budget now balloons that figure by another $182 million in the current fiscal year and next, increasing deficit spending in these two years alone by 65 percent to a total of $462 million. At this rate, spending in excess of revenues would bloat to more than $1 billion for the five-year period, a road map to financial disaster, not renaissance.

Of course, given the path laid out in Brownback's budget, the crisis will come much sooner. Whoever is elected governor this coming November immediately will confront a budget cycle drowning in a sea of red ink.

This budget represents only the latest chapter in Brownback's zigzagging experiment with the pocketbooks of Kansas taxpayers: Cutting income taxes mostly for higher income Kansans by nearly $5 billion in 2012; raising taxes weighted toward middle- and lower-income taxpayers by more than $2 billion in 2013 and adopting a budget that spends more than it takes in every year in the foreseeable future; and in 2014 proposing to bloat deficit spending to approximately $500 million this year and next.

In addition Brownback proposes to borrow another $215 million through the state highway fund, but the monies will not be used to improve roads. For the second year in a row, his budget claims the funds to pay for state obligations other than highways. As a result, Kansas taxpayers will be paying down more than $400 million in debt, principal and interest for the next 20 years in order to help underwrite income-tax cuts, this year and next, primarily to the benefit of those with higher incomes.

Prior governors have projected state revenues and spending in five-year time frames as sound financial management, but Brownback refuses to do so. His spokesperson explains such projections might cause "controversies." This hardly is surprising since nothing but deficit spending, depleted balances and red ink lie ahead.

Brownback asserts his tax cuts will spur economic growth and cover future budget holes, but offers only his beliefs to support these claims. Reports from the Kansas Department of Labor show job growth during Brownback's term has been anemic at best. Fewer Kansans are working today than when Brownback took office. Even the most optimistic job numbers show Kansas trailing the nation as a whole.

Brownback also achieved high irony in his address by quoting President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "The opportunist thinks of me and today. The statesman thinks of us and tomorrow." Brownback's election-year budget of more deficit spending and more debt stands in stark contrast to Ike's extraordinary record in achieving balanced budgets during his presidency.

Kansans expect honesty and authenticity in their elected leaders, which might explain why in an independent survey last fall, fewer than one in four Kansans expressed a favorable opinion of Brownback.

H. Edward Flentje is a professor

at Wichita State University.

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