When Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, voted against a bill that would have raised income taxes in Kansas, repealed the LLC exemption and generated more than $1 billion over the next two years, here’s how he explained his decision: “Our state government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” This is Whitmer’s automatic response to any suggestion of a tax increase, and many of his colleagues make the same argument. However, they rarely specify exactly what spending reductions they’d like to see.
When lawmakers demand budget reductions, they have a responsibility to explain which cuts should be made and why. Senate President Susan Wagle failed to do this when she called for an across-the-board cut (2 percent) and a decrease in K-12 education appropriations – a proposal she framed as necessary to fairly address the state’s $280 million shortfall this year: “We’re experiencing a shortfall in all agencies, and after we’ve had a budget committee look at all aspects of spending and dictate the amounts they think are appropriate for each agency, how do you do anything other than across the board and have everyone experience the pain the same amount?”
Why did Wagle imply that a sweeping cut was the only option? On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would take $103 million out of a long-term investment fund and delay a $150 million KPERS payment to balance the budget this year. While we criticized this bill in our last editorial, we reluctantly acknowledged that it may be the only feasible way to get the state through this fiscal year. Wagle’s cuts, on the other hand, would be far too disruptive this late in the session.
According to Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, the Legislature missed its chance to impose budget reductions: “I think our opportunity, if there was going to be any kind of cuts, needed to happen when we first came back to the session. I think that ship has sailed.” The director of finance for Derby Public Schools, Don Adkisson, said Wagle’s plan would be destructive to districts across the state: “To all of a sudden put us on the spot with three months left in the school year is extremely unfair to us.” Moreover, the Legislature may have to find hundreds of millions of dollars by June 30 to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling that education funding is inadequate in Kansas – does Wagle really think this is a good time to slash school budgets?
Lawmakers were aware of the shortfall long before the session began. If the budget committee examined “all aspects of spending” and determined how much funding is “appropriate for each agency,” why isn’t this scrupulous analysis reflected in Wagle’s proposal? Instead of taking the time to evaluate what each agency needs (as well as what they could do without), Wagle wants to cut millions of dollars from their budgets indiscriminately. This is a desperate last-minute measure disguised as fiscal responsibility.
Earlier this week, Wagle tried to make her plan sound like the only prudent choice: “I think Kansans expect us to cut expenses before we determine a tax increase.” If that’s true, Wagle had plenty of time to develop something better than the reckless proposal she introduced on Thursday.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Hosman, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.