An old adage, “you don’t eat your seed corn,” is getting used a lot around the Capitol these days.
The Great Recession in Kansas has been marked by record decreases in tax revenues matched by record cuts, totaling nearly $1 billion from what was once a $6.4 billion state budget. That’s a 15 percent cut.
Waiting lists for basic social services have gotten longer, while some programs for poor and elderly people have been shut down.
School classrooms are more crowded, and programs to stop the revolving prison door have been eliminated. State funding to school districts and higher education has been rolled back to 2006 levels.
Even after five rounds of budget cuts and the addition of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, the state still faces a revenue shortfall of $400 million merely to carry forward the current, sliced up budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The most recent slew of cuts included a 10 percent whack to Medicaid — the federal and state-funded program that provides health care for poor people.
Gov. Mark Parkinson, who has presided over much of the cutting, and some legislators have said enough is enough. If more cuts are enacted, the state will be eating its seed corn, harming the future of Kansas.
“We cannot make it through this recession by cutting ourselves into an incurable position,” Parkinson said. He said that when the 2010 legislative session starts Monday, “we must look toward building a solution for the years ahead or we will permanently damage the foundation of our state.”
After a recent forum during which community members met with members of the Douglas County legislative delegation, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said the basic premise of what government is supposed to be is up in the air.
“The Legislature and Kansas citizenry really need to be engaged in a serious discussion of what are the responsibilities of government,” he said.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said to fix the revenue hole, the time has come for the Legislature to eliminate some tax exemptions, even if only temporarily, which are costing the state millions of dollars.
“I would hope that people understand when you become desperate those are things you have to do, and human services and education can only take so many hits,” Ballard said.
But passing a tax increase, especially in an election year, will be difficult, to say the least.
Key leaders in the Republican-dominated Legislature oppose tax increases, arguing that with a struggling economy, Kansans don’t need to pay more taxes.
“Every economist in the world tells you, you don’t raise taxes in a recession,” House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said recently.
One of the wild cards in this budget battle will be public school funding. Making up half the state budget, funding to schools has been cut approximately $300 million.
For school funding advocates, the cuts have been particularly disheartening because it took intervention by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2005 and 2006 to get the Legislature to increase funding and direct those dollars more equitably.
Because of the recent cuts, a coalition of school districts representing about one-third of Kansas students will try to reopen the school finance lawsuit before the state Supreme Court to get the Legislature to restore the lost funds.
Ballard, a veteran of 16 legislative sessions, said everyone in state government is going to have to bend.
“All of us working together and sacrificing a little bit, I think we can get over this hump. It’s not like we didn’t know this was coming. We just didn’t know just how bad it was going to be,” she said.