Skate? Hug?

Syndicated to Kansas newspapers Jan. 16, 2017

Martin HawverJust two days after being sworn-in and on the payroll, state legislators got the governor’s plan for the budget to fill the $350 million shortfall in the remaining six months of this fiscal year and the two last years of Sam Brownback’s governorship.

And, it is tricky and confusing, especially for the new legislators, nearly a third of the members, and they are still trying to figure out what goes where, and what’s borrowed from what.

The real key to the whole operation, though, is that the governor has managed to find a way to finance the shortfall this year and budget for the last two years of his governorship without any general tax increases.

That’s the political equivalent of walking across snow and not leaving tracks.

It puts the state in a financial bind, but there are no significant new taxes, and no tax on the LLCs and sole proprietorships and farms that the governor has touted as the engines of prosperity for Kansas. The bill for those transfers and shuffles doesn’t show up until someone else is governor.

Politically, it doesn’t get any better than that. Remember that good (even great) politics and good government aren’t the same. Good government keeps the schools, roads, health care, and the poor taken care of. Good politics boils down to not inconveniencing your voter base.

That’s something that is a pretty good final budget…no tax increases that most Kansans will wind up paying.

Oh, he does plan to boost the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, and double the tax on liquor, but besides the predictable grumbling a lot of smokers/drinkers probably will have to admit that they aren’t paying what those two vices are worth now.

There is budget shuffling and internal borrowing that is all pretty complicated and pushes the state’s revenue shortfalls into the future, but if you turn over the keys to the governor’s mansion in January 2019, well, you can read about it in the papers from somewhere else.

Practically, what is a good political budget for the governor is going to see substantial shaking up by the House and the Senate. Already lawmakers are upset about cutting payments to the state pension fund and borrowing from caches of cash in obscure special finance accounts. That internal borrowing, while it doesn’t show up immediately, remains an obligation to be repaid, and the repayment of that borrowing doesn’t happen until there’s a different person living in Cedar Crest, the state housing for the governor.

The next couple weeks should tell whether the governor gets most of his deficit-filling plan adopted. It’s going to be one of those “negotiations” between the Legislature and the governor; it may well come down to whether a gubernatorial veto of the Legislature’s plan can be overridden by the lawmakers or whether they have to try again. The out-years budget is one thing that lawmakers can work on next session, but finishing this fiscal year with a balance in the treasury is a constitutional requirement that won’t wait until next session.

So, let’s watch the next couple weeks on the current fiscal year budget. It may tell Kansans whether the Legislature has taken over or whether the governor is still in charge. …Or, whether it matters much to the governor who is running things for the last two years of his term.

A governor can pretty much make a job out of attending ribbon-cuttings, highway repaving projects and such without actually doing much policymaking work that requires legislative approval.
He can skate…if he cares to. Or, they could all just hug.

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