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Archive for Thursday, August 20, 2009

Belt-tightening

August 20, 2009

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A potential silver lining to the current tight economy is that it is making Kansas lawmakers take a hard look at how much it costs to run state and local governments.

The House Appropriations Committee was ordered back to work last week to try to find ways to reduce the state budget. House leaders have told the committee that tax increases are not on the table; they are looking for cuts.

Some people may disagree with the “cuts only” strategy, and it’s likely that canceling certain state tax exemptions should at least be examined, but looking at ways to streamline government and cut costs also has some merit. It must be done carefully, however, and with an awareness to how cuts can affect communities.

Consolidation of school districts was on the list of items for the committee to study, along with the possibility of consolidating state courts, state agencies and local governments.

Although the number of school districts in the state has declined slightly in recent years, Kansas still has 293 districts and 342 high schools. Do we need that many schools? State law requires a district court judge to be in every county. According to a list on the state’s judicial Web site, some small counties, including Cowley, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery and Neosho, have two district court offices in two different towns. Is that necessary? Government jobs provide a significant portion of the overall payroll in many counties. Are there ways to streamline those efforts? These are all legitimate questions for legislators to ask.

A couple of years ago, the Farm Service Agency closed 11 offices in Kansas and consolidated their operations in neighboring counties. K-State Research and Extension also has seen considerable consolidation in recent years. Legislators might be able to learn something by looking at how successful or unsuccessful such efforts have been.

A wonderful story in Sunday’s Journal-World about the Smith Center high school football team was a touching reminder of how important a school can be to a small town. In towns like Smith Center, it is a major source of community interaction and pride. That’s worth something.

As legislators look at tightening school and government budgets, they need to consider the impact that consolidation of services will have on a community. They also need to justify their recommendations by producing real monetary savings, not just closing offices to close offices.

They also should remember that state government is not immune from wasteful spending and duplication of services. One committee member brought up the possibility of folding the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp. into another agency doing very similar work. Maybe that makes sense.

Everyone talks about the costs of government, but when it comes to cutting those costs, there are few easy choices. Difficult times could be an opportunity to make some decisions that should have been made long ago, but lawmakers must weigh those decisions carefully against the impact they will have on Kansas residents and communities.

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