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Archive for Saturday, March 23, 2002

State legislators must adjust priorities to support education

March 23, 2002

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It is difficult to figure out the priorities or thinking of a number of Kansas legislators.

The state faces a shortfall of approximately $700 million, and some way must be found to present a balanced budget as required by state law.

It really doesn't do any good to look back and point fingers about why the state finds itself in such terrible fiscal condition. What needs to be done is to learn from the past, remember what happened and not make the same mistakes again. Now, the state must move forward and devise a sound plan to deal with the huge shortfall and meet the state's needs in these dangerously tight times.

Basically, there are three choices:

 Cut all expenses and services to the bone.

 Reduce some state expenses and services while increasing state taxes.

 Come up with some kind of jury-rigged budget that meets the needs for a balanced budget but is likely to fall apart soon after its passage by state legislators, thereby creating an even greater problem by postponing what must be done.

What's hard to figure out are those in the Legislature who refuse to endorse any increase in taxes. No matter the logic of those favoring new or higher taxes, these lawmakers have their heels dug in and refuse to budge.

Earlier in the session, a substantial number of Kansas legislators made it clear they would not vote in favor of "sin taxes," such as an additional 65 cents on a pack of cigarettes or a similar small tax hike on a six-pack of beer. Others said they would not favor a higher gasoline tax. They said it time and again: "No new taxes."

Those following this mantra claim the $700 million shortfall can be offset by reducing services and eliminating waste.

It is good to have state lawmakers eager to have state government operate as efficiently as possible and to do away with waste. It's likely every state or federal government agency could be operated more efficiently, just as most private and publicly owned businesses could reduce expenses and still operate effectively.

However, in the case of the current state fiscal crisis, those refusing to approve any new taxes and seeking to reduce state fiscal support to a wide range of state-aided bodies are cutting into the muscle and bone of these organizations, not merely cutting out the fat!

The local school district offers a vivid example. Under the latest thinking of the Legislature, Lawrence school officials are likely to have to find a way to eliminate close to $8 million from the district's budget. School board members have spent months studying the matter and have proposed two levels of cuts, one to be enacted immediately and the other to go into effect if state support is reduced even further. It now appears all proposed cuts will have to be imposed.

For instance, what is the district to do with many programs in special education? These programs are mandated by state and federal regulations. This means the district could eliminate these special education programs and possibly be sued by the state or some federal agency, or it can reduce other programs to maintain funding for state and federal special ed requirements.

Staff positions will be cut, and the number of teachers will be reduced. Other programs and positions scheduled to be reduced or eliminated: elementary school band and orchestra, foreign language classes, choral music positions, district support for the WRAP program, school bus routes, registered school nurses, all-day kindergarten, counselors and all extra reading and math programs. Severe cuts are proposed in athletic programs, including the elimination of sophomore athletics and junior high cheerleading. And the list goes on.

Fees would be increased for many activities  at least those still remaining. A fee of $50 per student would be imposed for many sports programs and school activities. In the junior high schools, this would include basketball, football, track, tennis, wrestling, volleyball, pep club and performance groups, such as band, drama and choir. In the high schools, the $50 fee would be attached to all of those activities plus baseball, golf, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, softball, pom squads, debate and forensics.

Cuts in the local system would have an effect at every level from preschool to the 12th grade. The cuts would be initiated at the start of the next school year.

Again, there are many lawmakers in Topeka who favor making these cuts rather than imposing an added tax on cigarettes or beer. Granted, these taxes would not solve all the fiscal problems facing the state, but it is clear where the priorities and values of these lawmakers lie in regard to education: To hell with the cuts and eliminations in grades K-12; no new taxes, not even a tax on cigarettes or beer. Better to make it tough on high school students than increase the cost of a pack of cigarettes or beer.

Cuts at the college and university level are going to be just as severe, and cities that are home to community colleges and universities are going to see major changes on those campuses. With less state aid to the Kansas Board of Regents schools, tuition increases are inevitable, and it isn't clear how this will affect the number of Kansas high school graduates, or their parents, who must decide to put off or bypass a college education.

It is questionable whether most Kansans realize or understand the local effect of cuts in state aid for education, especially at the K-12 levels. Some suggest the effect will not be as severe at the college/university level, but here, too, there will be major damage to the quality of higher education programs offered to Kansas high school graduates.

As several have noted, this game of taxes, state support, new taxes and the quality of the state's educational system now is in the fourth quarter, almost down to the last chance to score to tie the game.

It's not a good situation. In fact, it is very dangerous, and a large part of the problem is the legislators who refuse to consider any new taxes. These lawmakers believe they are helping the state by forcing Kansans to realize the penalties and consequences of overspending and waste. To a degree, this may be correct, but at the same time, these no-tax lawmakers should be realistic and realize they can be helpful to the state and its residents by approving minimal tax increases and avoiding long-lasting injury to the state.

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