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Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Dire revenue reality looms

October 28, 2002

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— The state gives away nearly three-quarters of the general tax dollars it raises to school districts, other local governments and needy individuals.

That fact limits the opportunities for pulling the state out of its financial crisis by making its agencies more efficient, no matter how often Republican Tim Shallenburger and Democrat Kathleen Sebelius say they can avoid both a tax increase and painful cuts in aid to public schools or other areas of the budget.

As gubernatorial candidates, they insist they can't be too specific about their proposals for dealing with the state's budget problems, as if showing a can-do attitude will be enough.

But reality looms. On Nov. 5, Election Day, state officials and university economists will make the revenue forecasts that one of them and legislators will have to use in putting together a budget.

Then, any efficiencies in government will be welcome, but they probably won't be enough for the new governor to avoid choosing between cuts in programs and increasing taxes.

Clear picture

The official forecast is that the state will collect about $4.5 billion in tax revenues during its current fiscal year, which began July 1. That's more than enough to sustain its $4.42 billion budget.

But no one believes that estimate will hold, because revenues in fiscal 2002, which ended June 30, were $212 million short of expectations.

Officials expect that same shortfall to recur in fiscal 2003, cutting revenues to $4.3 billion and leaving a $103 million deficit unless spending is reduced.

The Legislative Research Department has suggested that spending would have to decrease again in fiscal 2004 to avoid another deficit. Based on its figures, the most conservative estimate of how much the current budget would have to decline by the end of fiscal 2004 is $164 million.

Shallenburger has promised not to increase taxes, and Sebelius has come close to doing so though she hasn't made an absolute pledge. Both have promised not to cut aid to public schools; both argue that making government more efficient offers a way for such a scenario to work.

Look again

The budget approved by legislators and signed into law by Gov. Bill Graves for fiscal 2003 appropriated about $1.22 billion for state agency operations.

Aid to local governments, including school districts, was more than twice as much, at $2.55 billion. Other assistance payments and grants outside government like social services amounted to $655 million.

A governor who wanted to touch only agency operations would have to cut at least 13 percent of everything spent in that category.

Sebelius has promised a top-to-bottom review of state government to find efficiencies and has suggested she will work to find untapped federal funds and go after tax and welfare cheats.

She has not been specific about where potential savings are and has promised to protect both aid to public schools and higher education spending.

Shallenburger has said he would trim everything but aid to public schools, arguing that an average cut of 7.5 percent would do the job.

To pull it off, though, he would have to touch social-service benefits and aid to local governments as well as state bureaucracies, or make deeper cuts in those bureaucracies.

Transportation issues

Shallenburger argued during the last debate that the state can build all of the projects promised under its $13.5 billion, 10-year highway program and still find savings by making the Department of Transportation more efficient.

KDOT's administration accounts for only 4 percent of the program's total cost.

The program sets aside $7 billion for major improvements, a figure that does include some administrative expenses because, as KDOT spokesman Marty Matthews noted, "Somebody has to design them, and somebody has to inspect them."

Shallenburger also has suggested that the state could eliminate its motor pool to save money.

A 1997 state audit suggested any savings would be small. The audit noted that while the state owned 7,700 vehicles during fiscal 1997, 1,500 were owned by the central motor pool, only 250 of which were used for individual employees' trips rather than being permanently assigned to one agency.

The state could save money, the audit suggested, by having all agencies own their own vehicles rather than use a pool, but that would amount to only about $554,000 in fiscal 1997 figures.

Leasing vehicles would be more expensive, the audit said. Costs also would rise if employees drove their own cars and were reimbursed for mileage, it said.

The state probably can find some such efficiencies; it's difficult to imagine any $4.4 billion enterprise with 40,000-plus employees that cannot. Even in good budget times, searching for waste pleases taxpayers.

But the state's budget problems are so big that it's likely to take every efficiency the new governor can find and then tough choices about cutting programs or raising revenue, or both.

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