And so it begins. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback apparently has gotten over his "surprise" of the ballooning deficit in state finances caused by massive income tax cuts enacted two years ago -- and now is recommending matching expense reductions.
The governor released details this week on how he plans to erase the $280 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30. It is a simple plan, with most of the dollars being pulled from agencies that have large amounts of cash on-hand. That will give the governor approximately $201.5 million to place in the general fund. The remaining $78.5 million comes from cuts to most state agencies of 4 percent and a $41 million reduction in KPERS payments.
"These first steps are a down payment in resolving the immediate budget issue," Brownback said in a press release. "Our job now is to address this situation through good fiscal governance while maintaining our investment in education, sustaining funding for public safety and allowing T-WORKS (the state's highway plan) to be completed."
At least the governor can at least utter the words "budget issue." Throughout his re-election campaign, Brownback was steadfast in his belief that economic growth was coming and anybody who didn't believe were a bunch of Chicken Littles -- or at least part of the liberal media conspiracy. It did not matter some of the critics were national credit ratings agencies that downgraded Kansas debt repeatedly.
Voters who believed Brownback's promises also want smaller government, so expense reductions are the way to go. Department heads, cabinet secretaries and most elected officials certainly aren't going to resist.
Secretary of Transportation Mike King says the loss of $95.7 million from the state highway fund will not affect ongoing projects or those scheduled to begin in the next two years. And having $7.8 million taken away from his operating budget will not result in any loss of jobs or pay.
There is $55 million being swept from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, plus $775,000 in operating funds. The larger number represents federal rebates intended for Medicaid consumers filling drug prescriptions.
The $15 million taken from the Kansas Endowment for Youth and the Children's Initiatives Fund drew criticism from outside sources, as the KEY fund will be reduced to zero. Christie Appelhanz, vice president for public affairs for Kansas Action Children, said the move threatened to "decimate early childhood programs in the state of Kansas."
The loss of $4 million operating funds for the Department for Children and Families likely will mean even more needy families losing benefits by changing regulations.
KPERS, the state's pension system, will lose aforementioned $41 million. Readers should recall recommitting to making payments to the retirement plan was one of Brownback's talking points during the campaign. The governor also counted all school employees' KPERS payments as part of his total spending on education, which allowed him technically to claim the state was keeping up its commitment to schools. Public employees also should recall their scheduled increase to KPERS will remain in effect while the state drops its rate -- and the $7.4 billion unfunded liability will resume its previous growth pattern.
"Basically, I think that all 290,000 of the KPERS eligible workers and retirees in the state should be deeply disappointed by the actions taken by Gov. Brownback," Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, told the Wichita Eagle.
"We are still studying the details, but there is no doubt the governor's announcement has put the Legislature in a difficult position," Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said in a statement. "I would have preferred to see the burden spread evenly throughout the state. That would certainly be a more fair approach than picking winners or losers and asking the Legislature to fill the gap."
The Legislature needs to approve most of the measures Brownback announced. And lawmakers still will face a $436 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year. That figure is presuming the same $280 million in adjustments carries over from this year, which will be difficult as the cash sweeps are a one-time proposition. It also assumes the Legislature is comfortable having no reserves. Since state law requires a 7.5 percent ending balance, somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million, lawmakers will have to craft next year's budget by finding $1.1 billion.
Even that number can grow. Everything is based on the latest revenue estimates, which in the past year have not been very close. The $1.1 billion gap also assumes no more credit downgrades, and no edict from the court to make education funding adequate.
Whether Brownback's downsizing of state government ever rivals William Clarke Quantrill's sacking of Lawrence, history will be the judge.
Quantrill's Raid did leave Lawrence in ruins and hundreds dead in an effort to "take from the wealthy and give to the poor," as one ballad romanticized. Brownback's Raid might not result in deaths directly, but those thousand cuts will add up. Plus, the entire state will be smoldering before voters get a chance to undo last month's election results.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry