The announced closure of the Lawrence Social and Rehabilitation Services office has been both a significant blow to our community and a clear indication that politics is far from absent in budget decisions coming from Topeka. It must be disappointing to every citizen of Lawrence and Douglas County that the office will close and that SRS employees will be forced to relocate to offices in other cities.
There are many problems with this decision. First, of course, is the very basic question of why the Lawrence office was targeted. Gov. Sam Brownback and SRS chief Siedlecki have been quite clear that reducing the statewide SRS budget by $1 million is a high priority. But what has not been clear at all is why the Lawrence SRS office must be closed to provide $400,000 of that amount. As the Journal-World has reported, the closure comes at a time when the Mr. Siedlecki has increased the SRS administrative budget by almost $200,000 for two high level appointments in the agency’s Topeka headquarters.
Neither he nor the governor has indicated why the Lawrence office had to be totally eliminated rather than simply downsized and the shortfall made up by similar partial cuts to SRS offices in other parts of the state. Nor has Siedlecki or Brownback discussed the quite pertinent fact that about half of the savings gained from closing the Lawrence SRS office will be offset by the loss of federal funding brought in by that office.
Finally, it’s hard to imagine that the governor or the SRS chief is unaware that the closure of the Lawrence SRS office will force the county and city to allocate funds to other local agencies to help compensate for the loss of SRS services. In other words, Lawrence and Douglas County taxpayers will end up paying more in local taxes, an increase that not only will offset any tax reductions derived from the closure, but actually increase local taxes to the point that the local increases exceed the state-level reductions.
So why is this happening? To my mind the answer is clear. Lawrence is, without question, the last politically liberal outpost in Kansas. Lawrence and Douglas County show up on political maps as a speck of liberal blue in a sea of conservative red. Is it surprising in a state where the Legislature is overwhelmingly conservative, as is the governor, that when budget cuts are to be made, they fall most harshly on those liberal areas? This is the nature of politics. It is, in a sense, reverse patronage. But is it a good idea politically or socially?
I think the answer to this question is “no.” Reducing state services to areas dominated by minority political viewpoints is extremely dangerous. First, it sets a precedent that may someday backfire. Although Brownback is a political conservative, Kansas has frequently elected moderate Democrats or Republicans to fill the gubernatorial chair. By using agency budget reductions to punish political opponents, Brownback sets the stage for his successors to do the same.
Second, neither the governor nor the Legislature should forget that while the majority of Lawrence voters may not share their politics or support their election campaigns, there is a strong Republican conservative minority in Lawrence and Douglas County. These folks, too, are being punished by the cuts now being made.
In the end, I would suggest that cuts to administrative agencies should be made in a politically neutral way, based not on politics but on proven economic efficiency and social needs. By all means, Governor, hand out patronage jobs to your supporters. Lend your authority and prestige to legislation you feel comfortable with. But when it comes to budget cutting, let’s try to keep politics out of it.