Opinion: Refusing federal aid has a high cost
Kansas’s share of federal dollars has been dropping precipitously in recent years.
According to research conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, federal grants in Kansas as a portion of state revenues fell from 33% in 2011 to 23% in 2017. That steep drop, due largely to rejecting federal dollars, represented a shocking loss, estimated at $382 million in the 2017 state budget.
In the same time frame, the four states surrounding Kansas maintained their share of federal dollars at 33%. The average share of all 50 states has grown over the last four years to 32%.
Kansas now ranks third in the nation in refusing federal dollars. Only two states–Hawaii and Virginia–report slightly smaller shares than Kansas.
Should Kansans be cheering or booing state lawmakers for refusing available federal aid? The answer is a no-brainer.
Nearly 80% of all federal money to the states comes through grants for Medicaid or income security. Between 2011 and 2017, Republican lawmakers, led by former Gov. Sam Brownback, began denying available federal aid to the state’s most vulnerable residents–poor families, children, seniors, the unemployedand the disabled.
They blocked the extension of Medicaid coverage to 130,000 low-income working Kansans and their children.
They repeatedly restricted eligibility of the poorest Kansas families for federal aid through TANF (cash assistance) and SNAP (food stamps). The number of TANF recipients, over three-fourths being children, was slashed by over 70% from 2011 to 2018. The number of beneficiaries of food assistance, roughly half being children, declined over 30% from 2013 to 2018.
They privatized Medicaid in 2013 and cut Medicaid reimbursement rates in 2016. Medicaid cuts reduced health care services for 400,000 children, seniors, and disabled individuals. A private contractor backlogged, delayed, and too often denied applications of eligible seniors for nursing home care.
This rejection of federal assistance represents a dramatic departure for Kansas. In the early decades of the 20th century, Kansas lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, campaigned successfully for constitutional changes, as well as new taxes, that allowed state government to accept and match federal aid for roads, social welfare, unemployment compensation, and relief during the Great Depression. These actions set critical precedents for Kansas officials to accept and actively pursue available federal grants for public health, environmental protection, criminal justice, housing, workforce development and wildlife conservation, among many other public purposes.
That changed with Brownback’s vow to remake Kansas into a national model of red-state governance by refusing federal aid to vulnerable residents. His tax experiment failed and has been abandoned, but his assault on poor Kansans and their children continues in state law. Any attempts to change the law are fought off by the Kansas chamber of commerce and its dark money ally, Americans for Prosperity–organizations that despise spending on social safety nets. For the past seven years they have targeted lawmakers and legislative candidates who support such spending.
The ideological experiment with the lives of vulnerable Kansans is failing and continues to cost the Kansas economy hundreds of millions in federal dollars every year, even as we pay taxes that benefit all other states. Lawmakers should reclaim the state’s rightful share of federal grants and, for starters, approve the extension of Medicaid and reestablish reasonable guidelines for providing assistance to the poorest Kansans and their children.
–H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and served with former Kansas Govs. Robert Bennett and Mike Hayden.