Opinion: Don’t gloss over facts this session
The State of the State address is finished, and the governor has left Republican legislators near tears and Democratic legislators scratching their heads. The leaders have appeared in front of the journalists to declare that big problems remain over school finance again, Medicaid expansion again, KPERS solvency again and refilling depleted transportation infrastructure accounts again. Pundits assert that 2018 will be a very significant year as Kansans will pick a new governor, test the Republican hold on two out of four congressional seats and elect a new state House of Representatives. There will be declarations that policy solutions will go begging because of competitive clashes between candidates, incumbents and interests. And whatever happens, everyone must disavow further tax increases.
As this news is spilling out, facts will be glossed over or unmentioned because they don’t have the sizzle and sound-bite qualities that get people’s attention. The most important of these difficult facts involve the multi-year chasm that has been created by reduced revenue and resulting failures to provide previously enacted services to Kansans.
In December, the Kansas Legislative Research Department issued “Kansas Tax Facts: 2017 Supplement to the Eighth Edition.” (www.kslegislature.org/klrd) In this official, non-partisan and unembellished document you can discover that over the last 12 years, state tax revenues have increased at a rate of 1.4 percent per year. In the same time period, the annual change in the consumer price index was about 2 percent. In other words, even at these very low rates of increase, Kansas’s revenue receipts for state government ran about 30 percent behind the year-to-year increase in the cost of goods and services.
Inflation aside, there are additional factors. Consider the slow increase in public school students and the much more dramatic increase in numbers of elderly — both of whom drive big chunks of the state’s general fund budget. Since the 2006-07 school year, the state Department of Education’s K-12 headcount has grown from 496,000 to approximately 519,000 or 23,000 children. It’s a modest 4.5 percent increase but even at our judicially disapproved level of insufficient school funding, that increase represents nearly $90 million more annual cost than existed 12 years ago.
The governor’s budget division tracks the state’s changing demographics and includes that data in the governor’s annual budget message to the Legislature — again, an easily accessible internet resource. What that data shows is much more dramatic growth in the age 65-plus population than in the school population. In 2006 there were 140,000 fewer elderly than K-12 children in the state. Today, there are roughly 450,000 Kansans age 65 and older, just 69,000 fewer that the public school population.
Demographers predict persons 65 and over will exceed the number of juveniles here in Kansas by mid-century. The change in these past 12 years suggests those estimates are conservative. Over 90 percent of these elderly receive Social Security benefits, and according to 2014 data, 29 percent of them live at or below two times the federal poverty level or lower. These Kansans will need Medicaid-subsidized nursing care in large numbers. Even many currently above this arbitrary level are likely to need such assistance in their final years, if national trends hold.
These are realities that must be dealt with this year in Topeka and for years to come. Choking the flow of tax revenue compounded problems that were already growing. These cuts in effect defunded nearly $2 billion in programs and services enacted before the Brownback Administration took office. Just getting back to parity with those commitments and then coping with our looming challenges will require the public to know the facts, stay anchored in reality and demand effective accountable decisions from our leaders.
— Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.