For Kansas legislators, the new year might not feel all that happy. Veterans and first-termers alike have to be wondering why they ran for the job. In the upcoming legislative session, they face a daunting task, brimming with political risk.
Brownback’s “Kansas experiment” has brought the state budget to crisis. Kansas lacks the income to pay its bills, and not by a little. By hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions. The politically thankless task for lawmakers: either restore revenue to meet obligations, or chop up education, highways, human services, and public safety. Doing nothing will result in damaging service cuts by default.
In the current, already half-completed fiscal year, the general fund has come up $350 million short, even after huge one-time transfers from the highway fund and emergency budget cuts to Medicaid providers and higher education. Most lawmakers will feel obligated to address that immediate pressing problem before grappling with the much larger structural gap between income and expense in next year’s budget.
But they should not proceed in that order. Addressing the long-term structural problem in the Kansas budget must have the highest priority. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a bit like the safety instruction you hear from an airline attendant, “If the oxygen masks come down and you are traveling with a child, put your own mask on first; then attend to the child.” Stabilize the budget structure first, and then deal with the current fiscal year.
Only financially awful alternatives exist to cure the $350 million shortfall. Lawmakers cannot logistically raise new revenue fast enough. So that leaves either sudden budget cuts concentrated at year’s end, or some kind of one-time patch. With the bank account empty and the highway fund tapped out, the “easy” one-time patches have already been used up, but insiders talk of selling something (tobacco settlement revenue, the turnpike), or paying bills late, or grabbing the unclaimed property of Kansas citizens, or somehow borrowing the money.
One-time patches do not solve the real problem. Without a long-term solution in place, selling assets or borrowing become just another hopeless component in the downward spiral of Kansas finances.
But if lawmakers can muster the political will to put a long-term plan in place first, Kansas has hope for financial stability. Then a $350 million patch solution in the current year becomes a “bridge” to a more hopeful future, rather than a step into deeper crisis.
Kansas simply must raise revenue to structurally balance the budget. Closing the LLC loophole alone will not fix the problem. Hopefully Kansans will give their legislators political breathing room to pass a broad revenue reform plan correcting the irresponsible decisions of the past. Otherwise, we’ll face damaging cuts to education and key services.
Lawmakers, make it a happy new year for Kansas. End the ill-fated experiment and structurally fix the budget. Do it early in the legislative session. Do it quickly.
Duane Goossen formerly served 12 years as Kansas Budget Director.