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Archive for Thursday, April 21, 2005

Out of touch

Kansas legislators need to face the financial realities of the $127 million increase they have approved for the state’s K-12 schools.

April 21, 2005

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During a visit to the Journal-World last week, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius reiterated her displeasure with the $127 million K-12 funding plan passed by the Kansas Legislature. Asked what she would like legislators to do about the plan when they return to the capitol next week, she responded, "At a bare minimum they need to be honest about the finances.... Tell us how you're going to pay for it."

It seems like a reasonable request. But even in the face of financial questions from the Kansas Supreme Court and new state revenue estimates issued earlier this week, legislators still seem to be hiding from the financial impact of their school finance plan.

Rather than approving any tax increases, cutting other areas of the budget or identifying any specific funding source for the $127 million increase in school funding, legislators said they were depending on a strong state economy to produce increased state revenues to offset the cost. While the Kansas economy is on the upswing, estimates issued by the state Monday aren't high enough to cover the costs of the plan.

The estimates -- and we should remember they are only estimates -- added $55 million to the expected revenue figure for this fiscal year and $72 million for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. However, according to Budget Director Duane Goossen, depending on those increased revenues to fund the school finance plan would drive the state's reserves down to near zero by July 1, 2006. Gov. Sebelius put it a little more bluntly, calling the plan "a recipe for financial disaster."

At least a few legislators also apparently are uncomfortable with the school finance plans, but their approach to correcting the situation also seems out of touch with reality. During what is expected to be a short wrap-up session, legislators hope to consider two plans to expand casino gambling and slot machines at several state locations. One of those plans was proposed by the governor early in the session and went nowhere.

As legislative observers know, debating expanded gambling for Kansas is an annual event in the Legislature, but for various reasons, almost nothing passes. The idea that such proposals could be pushed through the Legislature during the wrap-up session is a pipe dream. And even if some gaming proposal passes it will take time for the operations to ramp up and produce any revenue for the state.

The wrap-up session, which starts Wednesday, is expected to be short, in part, because the state Supreme Court won't hear oral arguments on the school finance plan until May 11. Without additional impetus from the court, legislators are unlikely to revisit their $127 million plan. A costly special session after the court provides additional feedback doesn't seem out of the question. In the meantime, as the governor said, dealing honestly with how they will finance the school plan they already have passed seems like the least the legislators can do.

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