Editorial: Broad blame

Kansas legislators also share responsibility for the state’s budget fiasco.

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

Kansans who are blaming Gov. Sam Brownback for the state’s budget problems should save some of their outrage for state legislators who concluded their session early Monday.

Around 3:30 a.m. Monday, the Kansas Senate managed to barely pass a budget bill, which won narrow approval in the House a couple of hours earlier. The bill assumes the governor will sweep another $150 million out of the state highway fund and continue a 3 percent reduction in state university funding. But even with those measures, spending in the budget still is about $22 million above expected revenue.

To address that issue, legislators authorized the governor to further delay a $92 million payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. If the governor takes that action, the state budget would balance, leaving an ending balance — at least on paper — of $70 million. That is, of course, if revenue estimates stand up and the state doesn’t face any unexpected financial challenges.

Kansas legislators now have gone home and many are preparing to launch re-election campaigns. Apparently those who voted in favor of the budget plan thought it would be easier to explain to their constituents why they passed off many budget-cutting decisions to a governor whose public approval rating stood at 21 percent in March than to struggle with resolving the budget issues themselves.

Of particular note, was the House’s failure last week to pass a bill repealing the business income tax cuts. While it’s true that the measure wouldn’t have addressed the current budget shortfall, it was a step in the right direction and would have sent a message to Brownback that legislators saw a need to address the state’s budget woes from the revenue side and not just the spending side.

The 12 Democrats and some moderate Republicans who voted against the repeal argued that the bill didn’t go far enough or that it was unlikely to pass the Senate anyway or would be vetoed by Brownback. The weakness of those arguments may make observers wonder whether at least some of those “no” votes had a political motivation — perhaps to ensure the state’s financial situation was as bad as possible when November elections roll around.

During the 2016 session, many legislators were quick to blame the governor’s policies for the state’s financial problems. It’s true that Brownback led the tax-cutting charge, but legislators had to approve the cuts before the governor could sign them into law. They share the responsibility not only for the state’s current situation but for figuring out how to fix it.

“Those of us who come back next year better start figuring this out,” Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, told a Topeka reporter Monday. “And whether it’s revenue or cuts or a combination of both — but we cannot continue to play a shell game. … We cannot continue to not pay our bills.”

Longbine is right. The shell game has to end, as does the finger-pointing that is replacing true leadership on state budget issues.