Editorial: A few numbers to consider

Kansas lawmakers spent time this week considering a bill that would add Kansas to the list of states calling for a convention of the states to propose changes to the U.S. Constitution.

What was driving this need for change? An urgent need to rein in the power of the federal government.

Putting aside the nagging question of whether the current group of Kansas legislators is a qualified editor for the Founding Fathers, this makes perfect sense. It is hard to go wrong politically in a Republican state arguing for limited government.

For whatever reason, the bill, rightly so, didn’t win enough votes in the Kansas Senate to advance. Maybe some remembered that the proponents of this bill are the same limited government champions who routinely cause the Kansas Legislature to stay in session past its allotted number of days, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for the pleasure of seeing these public servants work their magic.

Although those numbers are interesting, there is perhaps an even better set of numbers to gauge lawmakers’ commitment to limited government. Each year, the state puts out a report called a “debt study.” The state so strongly believes in limited government that government leaders do next to nothing to highlight the findings of this important report. But the 2017 Debt Study is on the Kansas Development Finance Authority’s website for those who want to look at it.

Here are some numbers from that report, which might be instructive as lawmakers and others think about limited government in Kansas:

  • In fiscal year 2005, Kansas made $39.7 million in state general fund debt payments. In fiscal year 2018, it will make $189.2 million in debt payments.
  • In fiscal year 2005, those debt payments accounted for 0.82 percent of the state’s general fund revenues. In 2018, they will account for 2.78 percent of state general fund revenues.
  • In 2017, the amount of state tax-supported debt in Kansas stood at $1,575 per person. Here’s the per capita debt numbers for other states in our region: Missouri: $579 per person; Oklahoma: $365 per person; Colorado: $353 per person; Iowa: $228 per person; and Nebraska: $18 per person. Just for good measure, Kansas is above the national average, too, which is $1,473 per person. Kansas’ per capita debt levels are the 18th highest among the states.
  • Based on 2015 personal income figures, the amount of tax-supported debt in Kansas is equal to 3.4 percent of the state’s personal income — in other words, how much of your money is going toward paying off the state’s debt. Among the area states, only Missouri had a figure above 1 percent at 1.4 percent.

It is worth noting that Republicans have controlled both houses of state government — and thus the checkbook — during the entire time period of this study. During the entire time period they also have preached the value of limited government. They probably believe that. They do want government to stay out of your lives — as long as it can still get into your wallets.

These debt numbers are important. State lawmakers should spend some time contemplating the trend line that the numbers show. Maybe in a low interest rate environment, it is fine that the state has significantly increased its debt, just like it may be fine to have a national conversation about whether the federal government is overstepping its constitutional role.

But surely state lawmakers can understand why many Kansans guffaw at the idea of Kansas lawmakers helping solve the large national problems of the day. The amount of bumbling that occurs in Topeka is hard to watch. A particularly galling category of bumbling is when state lawmakers start preaching about what is wrong elsewhere.

On this issue, like so many others, the first convention Kansas lawmakers ought to convene is one with a mirror.