In the face of a mounting — and frightening — deficit in Kansas, the Legislature is now in the midst of rancorous debate over the best way to make cuts in state government. The governor has proposed targeted cuts with the goal of preserving K-12 education and selected social services. The Republican majority in the Legislature has been drawn instead to across-the-board cuts of all state agencies (with the exception, one might hope, of essential services such as state police). Arguments certainly can be made on both sides. Nevertheless, I believe that across-the-board cuts are the less desirable.
The primary argument made in favor of across-the-board budget cuts is that of fairness. According to proponents of this position, in a time when everyone is at risk, the best means of allocating “pain” is equally. All should suffer equally. While fairness is certainly a laudable goal, there are, I think, at least two strong arguments against it in the current situation.
First, we must ask whether an across-the-board cut to all state agencies is fair when, in times of prosperity, increases in funding are not allocated equally, but, on the contrary, are targeted. Is it truly fair that in good times, some agencies benefit more than others, but in hard times, all share the cuts equally?
One could argue that such a scheme is, in fact, regressive. Richer, better-funded programs, are better able, in many cases, to absorb cuts, than poorer programs. There seems little doubt that a 3 percent cut may devastate some state agencies, while a 5 percent cut might harm but not destroy other agencies that have more resources to begin with.
A second argument against across-the-board cuts is that these do very little to promote efficiency in state government. Agencies and programs that have been efficiently managed and waste fewer resources will not be rewarded for their efficiency. Indeed, one could argue that efficient agencies and programs will, in fact, be penalized for their past efficiency because they will have less “fat” to absorb the across the board cuts than less efficient, more wasteful agencies and programs. It seems strange to me that Republicans, who constantly speak of the need for greater governmental efficiency would support a strategy that goes against this goal.
Finally, and to my mind, most important, across-the-board cuts completely ignore state policies that are designed to further state economic goals through funding those activities that, in the minds of the legislators, are priorities. Across-the-board budget cutting ignores policies and priorities.
I have always believed that the most important role of the Kansas Legislature is to further the public policies favored by Kansas citizens and expressed in the choice of legislators through the election process. It seems to me that the failure by the Legislature to consider policy priorities in setting a budget is a failure to do what they were elected to do and a betrayal of those who voted them into office.
I do not, by this column, intend to endorse the governor’s policies that lie behind her targeted cuts. Instead, my goal is solely to point out that the Legislature needs to consider whether across-the-board budget cuts make sense. I don’t think that they do. Instead I believe that the Legislature has a duty to establish a budget based on what it considers to be the state’s priorities and to present that budget as an alternative to the governor’s proposal. Then the Legislature and the governor can have a meaningful policy debate. They owe it to the people of Kansas to do so.