Topeka Local officials say state legislators pulled a neat trick.
They balanced the budget in the just completed legislative session without a tax increase.
But they didn’t mention that their work could force local governments to increase taxes, cut services or a combination of both.
That’s got Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug upset.
“The elected officials who claim they are being fiscally responsible -- they are balancing their budget by merely shifting their expenditures to another level of government,” Weinaug said. “It’s not only irresponsible; it’s dishonest.”
And it has been going on for years, especially during the last three legislative sessions when state tax revenues took a historic nose dive during the Great Recession.
Previous legislative commitments to public school students, the mentally ill, roads, community correction programs and other areas have all been cut back, forcing local agencies to cut back and search for revenue.
“As the state shifts costs away from the state budget, Kansans can expect to see increases in property taxes or reduction in services,” said Melissa Wangemann, legislative services director and general counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties.
County jails across the state are holding more mentally ill people because of cuts in state facilities and funding of community mental health centers.
For example, in the Douglas County Jail in April and May, approximately 18 percent of those incarcerated were receiving medication for mental health issues, according to Douglas County Undersheriff of Corrections Kenneth Massey. For a person whom a court has deemed needs to go to Larned State Hospital for treatment, the wait can be longer than two months. “Essentially, we are on a waiting list,” Massey said. He said sometimes “the last place they need to be is incarcerated in our facility.”
For Kansas students, the bottom has fallen out of the promise of a three-year funding plan that resulted from a state Supreme Court ruling that the school finance system was unconstitutionally under-funded and inequitable.
“Much of that has now been taken back but the requirements and expectations continue to go up,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.
School operating budgets will fall $100 million this year. Base state aid per pupil is at its lowest level in a decade.
Local districts will have to increase local taxes if they are not already at the maximum amount allowed, raise fees on parents or make cuts in programs, Tallman said.
The evidence of funding cuts is readily apparent in Lawrence, where the district is closing Wakarusa Valley School and is using its contingency funds.
The district is looking at cuts of $3 million in the coming school year, compared with $4.6 million this year, and $3 million in the previous year.
Officials say when the state backs out of its commitments, that leaves local governments with limited options searching for revenue sources — mostly raising property taxes.
“If you end up in a wealthy community with a large tax base, you get a better education. That’s inherently unconstitutional and it goes against what I like to think it is in being a Kansan,” said Weinaug. And he added, “When you shift the tax burden to property and sales taxes, away from income tax, it’s regressive. The property tax puts the burden on elderly people who have more of their wealth tied up in a house and their income is fixed.”
The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 was approved with only Republican votes. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, signed it into law. Legislative leaders say the downstream impact is simply the reality of the times.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he is concerned about pressures to increase property taxes and cuts in school funding. But he said he believed most Kansas were resigned to the fact that the economy has been hurting. “It is part of the landscape,” he said.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said, “Government at all levels, federal state, local, school districts, are having to do with less money, and taxes aren’t always the answer to having less money.
“Finding efficiencies, reducing costs are things that they need to look at. Certainly we are challenging all levels of government to do more with less. We are not assuming that they will raise taxes, We are not forcing them to raise taxes.”