It’s all about the asterisk

Well, a month into the state coronavirus stay-at-home order, we’re only sure that there’s not much sure under the Dome at the Kansas Statehouse.

Probably the only thing you can bet on is that the Legislature isn’t going to convene for a short wrapup session as scheduled next Monday, when hopes were that a short maybe day or two session would end lawmakers’ work this election year.

And probably the No. 2 thing that we can be sure about is that all those bills promising tax cuts for Kansans aren’t going anywhere this session. No income tax cuts, no sales tax cut on groceries, no actual property tax cuts are likely to be approved. That’s tough because if there is anything that can distract Kansans from the rising numbers of cases of COVID-19, or the stay home order or the still up-in-the-air decision on whether Gov. Laura Kelly can order churches to meet with no more than 10 congregants, it’s a tax cut.

This week, the Legislature will get (after this column is written and sent to newspapers around the state) its Consensus Revenue Estimate (CRE) of just how much in tax money Kansas is likely to receive in the remaining months of this fiscal year and the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

And most of the discussion about what has been a solid base for figuring out just how much money the state will have to spend or save is just how big the asterisk is going to be on that final estimate. Because that handful of economists will have to make the estimate based on extraordinarily little information about what the pandemic, the shutdown of schools and of many businesses, and the general throttling of activities that yield the state tax dollars will produce.

More money next fiscal year? Doubt it. More income tax revenue next year? Doubt it. But the CRE experts have the background to make their estimate with a broader view of the pressure points on the state’s economy. So, look for an asterisk.

Practically, those estimators won’t even have a good grasp on what the first month of the massive school and business shutdowns have done to the state yet. That first-month information won’t be available until May 1. And it, of course, while being actual hard-dollar information, also will be less than conclusive because it will demonstrate spending—and tax collection—patterns before most Kansans had really figured out how to live with less cash in their pockets, and fewer places to spend it and determined just how to alter their lifestyles to deal with the pandemic.

Lots of hard facts on just what the state will take in and when – remember, income tax payment deadlines have been stretched to July 15 – just aren’t going to be available for at least several weeks.

So, what does the Legislature do whenever it returns? Do legislators stay at home until sometime in May when the money estimates are better? Do legislators just set a course for how to run the state and then hope it works out well and the taxes they pay to the state will cover it?

Lots of talk, of course, about the Republican-dominated Legislature, not the Democrat governor, setting the course for Kansans until the pandemic runs out.

Want to get out of Topeka quickly and get into the re-election campaign season early? Might it take more time to campaign if you can’t hold rallies and chat with voters on the front porch through the screen door?

Yes, it may be a month before legislators wrap up the session. And we’ll see how that works out, won’t we?