Kansans looking for an example of the state borrowing against its own future need look no further than the Kansas Children's Trust Fund.
The trust fund was established in 1999 using the state's share of a $246 billion settlement in a multistate lawsuit against the nation's tobacco companies. Kansas is to receive $1.6 billion over 25 years. That money was to go into a trust fund that would be invested to produce revenue to sustain children's programs in the state after the tobacco settlement payments stopped. So far, the state has taken in about $242 million from the settlement, but by the end of this month, the Children's Trust Fund will be empty.
That's because Kansas governors and lawmakers have seen fit in the current difficult economic times to divert money in the fund to cover other state expenses. Although the trust money was intended to be used for new children's programs, not to meet the state's ongoing obligations, Gov. Bill Graves used $11.5 million from the fund in 2002 to increase funding to public schools.
It's true, state children's advocates say, that about $45 million has been directed this year to programs important to children and families, but the dream of creating an endowment to sustain those programs for the future has gone down the drain.
One of the high points of the trust fund spending has been the Smart Start program, which brings together various community services to help prepare preschoolers, especially those from disadvantaged families, to enter kindergarten. But only a pilot project of seven Smart Start programs has been funded.
Results from the program have been positive. Not only were they able to take up the slack when other state assistance programs were cut, they were able to attract federal dollars to support the state effort. But seven programs don't begin to meet the need in Kansas. Without the ongoing support that was envisioned from the Children's Trust Fund, the state may never realize the full potential of Smart Start and other similar programs.
Kansas isn't the only state dipping into the tobacco settlement funds to meet immediate needs. Either because they needed the money immediately or because they feared tobacco companies would be unable to complete their 25-year funding obligation, some states even have sold their future tobacco revenue for a discounted price.
Extreme times may call for such extreme measures, but it's unfortunate to see Kansas lawmakers divert funds that were intended to provide a better future for Kansas children. The first four years of tobacco settlement money certainly have failed to meet the promise of the Children's Trust Fund. If Kansas is fortunate to see 21 more years of revenue from the tobacco settlement, state lawmakers should see that the money is put to work for the use it was intended, to ensure the future of programs important to Kansas children and families.