Pulling at the leash…

Jan. 26, 2017

Syndicated to Kansas newspapers Jan. 23, 2017

Martin Hawver“I wouldn’t have a dog that doesn’t pull at the leash.”
That was dad decades ago, but the concept that a dog is curious, eager to reach out, to pull against restraints, well, that shows the dog has heart.
And, just days into the 2017 Kansas legislative session, there’s at least one dog that is willing pull against the budget leash held by Gov. Sam Brownback.
That pup? The newly created House Committee on K-12 Education Budget.
Last week, the panel decided that it doesn’t want the governor to pull $85 million from the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System that is owed by the state on behalf of schoolteachers and other school workers. Actually, it includes the governor’s non-payment proposal for other state employees, but the teachers and general government workers are in the same pension pool, so the panel voted to preserve all the pension cuts.
That’s pulling against the leash. It’s nearly a quarter of the savings needed to balance the state budget in the current fiscal year, and because at some point those employees are going to retire, the state is going to have to come up with their pension money anyway.
The K-12 Education panel’s decision is a long way from enactment, but it was the first real, printed out on paper objection to the governor’s budget plan. It is unlikely that the KPERS provision will sail through the next level of consideration, the House Appropriations Committee, but it is a clear message to the governor that at least one panel of legislators isn’t interested in his plan to just delay and eliminate payments to finish his term without having to raise taxes.
That action is probably going to make this week interesting, because that KPERS plan of the governor is so technical that most Kansans would never know that it happened…which is exactly what Brownback wants to happen.
The governor’s plan, recall, doesn’t raise anyone’s taxes, doesn’t really inconvenience anyone, but takes spare cash out of state agency funds, delays or cancels payments to agencies and cashes out long-term revenue streams to get to July 1, 2017, with at least a little cash in the bank.
So where do things go from here?
Most likely budget cuts, actual reductions in state spending through June 30, which won’t be pretty but which won’t have out-year consequences that future legislatures are going to have to wrangle with.
And, of course, the biggest appropriation that the state makes is to K-12 education, so a single-digit cut there would solve most of this fiscal year’s projected deficit, but at a major political cost to many legislators…unless they can clearly make it a one-time, never again deal and convince Kansans that they are serious.
Oh, that cut might also mean that school districts across the state would have to pull money out of their dozens of narrow purpose funds, money they are hanging onto just in case something like an across-the-board state aid reduction actually happens. That spare money in school district budgets is referred to by some conservatives as hoarding.
Plainly, there is no simple solution to the budget deficit, and until it is fixed, there’s little pressing reason to start hashing out the biennial budget that covers the next two fiscal years which are the last two years of the Brownback administration.
The budget issue comes down to one key: Whether Kansas voters will realize the depth of the deficit and take a break from blaming previous Brownback-dominated sessions when taxes were sharply cut or eliminated and allow their senators and representatives to fix the short-term problem before they attack the long-term problem.
Pulling against the leash, well, that’s a start…

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