Armed with updated revenue estimates, Kansas legislators now can get down to the real work of producing a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Some painful choices will have to be made. Perhaps the most painful choice, especially during an election year, is to approve some kind of tax increase to close the $510 million budget shortfall now facing the state. It won’t be easy, but the biggest mistake state legislators could make is not to deal honestly with the people of Kansas.
The full Legislature won’t return to Topeka until next week, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee already is hard at work. According to news reports on Tuesday, committee members have been unable to find enough cuts to come even close to filling the budget gap, and Sen. Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican who chairs the committee, predicts that tax increases totalling about $350 million will be needed to fund the budget.
The committee is looking at all kinds of tax possibilities. Tuesday’s focus was a tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks. The proposed tax of one cent per teaspoon of sugar in canned and bottled beverages brought stiff opposition from soft drink bottlers and distributors. The scenario almost certainly will be repeated with every tax increase the Legislature considers.
At least the senators struggling with budget issues are being honest about the tax increases they are considering. The same can’t be said for a group of House Republicans who are standing on a plan they proposed last month that they claimed balanced the state budget without any additional taxes. In reality, the plan simply passes a significant tax burden along to any local community that wants to preserve even the current level of funding for their public schools.
The House plan would cut all state agency budgets by 1 percent and borrow $50 million from the state highway fund. It also wouldn’t replace federal stimulus funds that propped up public school budgets this year, leaving state funding for public schools at least $172 million below this year’s level.
If communities find the level of local funding that resulted from such a cut unacceptable, according to the House plan they would have the option of replacing that revenue with local taxes. So much for “no tax increase.” The state would simply be passing that responsibility on to local taxpayers.
Legislators who staunchly oppose any tax increase say an increase would be too hard on families who continue to struggle with the economic downturn, but a study released Monday by a member of the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group contends that a one-cent sales tax increase actually would be less harmful to the state’s economy than a $350 million budget cut.
The study suggests what most Kansans probably suspect: that the best course for the state is some combination of tax increases and budget cuts. It won’t be easy, but it’s a job state legislators were elected to do and do honestly, not by trumpeting a no-tax-increase budget that simply pushes the tax burden to local governments.