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Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

BEST (or worst) ideas

December 29, 2002

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Committees looking for ways to balance the state budget have come up with some good and not-so-good suggestions.

It's important in this stage of the state's budget-cutting discussions that all possibilities be "on the table." That sort of out-of-the-box thinking is what Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius was looking for when she appointed her Budget Efficiency Savings Team (BEST) to look at ways to make government services more efficient and less expensive.

However, now that some of the BEST proposals have been made public, the state needs to start evaluating which of the cuts are most palatable and which should be avoided. A sampling of the BEST ideas has good points and not-so-good points.

Holding off on capital improvements, for instance, has a certain appeal. Among those proposals was to delay renovation of the Topeka office building the state purchased from Security Benefit Group and to forgo building a new Wichita headquarters building for the Kansas Highway patrol. Those two ideas would save the state $6 million and $2.4 million, respectively.

In hard times, it makes some sense to reduce bricks-and-mortar spending, but lawmakers must be careful not to delay so many projects that they hamstring the state's future. For instance, the reduced spending on transportation projects that also is on the table could have a negative impact on economic development efforts that will be vital to the state's recovery from the current slump.

Another proposed reduction that seems to make sense is to reduce government spending on dues to organizations and periodical subscriptions by 20 percent. That move would save a surprisingly high $3 million a year. A similar cut might be applied to government travel budgets.

On the other side of the ledger are some budget-cutting ideas that seem more risky. At the top of the list is an arbitrary freeze on the number of frail elderly Kansans who can receive in-home services and tougher standards to qualify for some of those services. The BEST groups estimate such measures could save the state $4 million.

Some belt-tightening probably is possible in this area, but if cutting in-home services drives more Kansans into far-more-expensive nursing home care, the state will lose in the long run. Other proposals that could prove to be penny-wise and pound foolish are cuts in senior nutrition programs, the consolidation of two state hospitals for people with developmental disabilities and the consolidation of 11 Department of Social and Rehabilitation offices into five.

The elimination of general fund support for the Kansas Arts Commission also would be a tough way to save $1.5 million. The arts may seem like a frill, but they provide many jobs for Kansas residents. Unlike most other proposals, this idea also calls for the elimination, rather than just a reduction, in tax support, which could effectively eliminate the arts commission. The BEST committee said that support could be shifted to private funding sources, but that goal could be difficult to achieve in the current tight economy.

Some legislators are saying they see few new ideas in the BEST proposals. That probably is true, but the process may be useful in defining some of the issues and identifying at least a few potential actions to jump-start the difficult process of balancing the state budget.

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