The Kansas Budget Deficit Battle (Cliff’s Notes for Social Workers)

I am not a fiscal analyst. I do not pretend to be an expert on budget matters. Most of the policy issues on which I worked most intently were not big budget items, and so my engagement in the appropriations process was really only peripheral. Our instate tuition issue got wrapped up in the omnibus process in the 2004 session, so I sat through hours of budget negotiations between the House and Senate committees that year, and I worked some on school finance legislation, a huge part of the entire state budget, as it impacts Limited English Proficient and at-risk children.

This year, I have honestly been paying more attention to the Kansas state budget than I did when I was working full-time as a lobbyist; the budget battles impact the practicum organizations of a majority of my students, and I have been closely following the proposed cuts for public education in my role as a Board member of Kansas Families for Education. All of the name-calling and sky-is-falling back and forth have prompted me to think about what social workers need to understand about these difficult economic times, and about the ways in which states can respond to them. We’re not likely to be the best ‘numbers people’ in the room, but we do bring an important understanding: these numbers are really about people, and people’s lives, which makes them anything but academic. It is from that perspective that I share these thoughts about Kansas’ current budget woes, and the fight around them.

First, social workers need to remember that, to mangle several famous quotations together, “the news of this fiscal crisis has been greatly exaggerated.” NO, I’m not saying that we don’t have a serious deficit, or that real people aren’t going to be seriously hurt by the cuts that ensure. My points are these:

  • When did you ever hear a state legislator say to a social work advocate, “We’re flush with money right now, so we’re going to increase funding for programs that serve (fill in the blank: low-income families, people with disabilities, hungry children)”? They don’t. So we can’t wait for the budget to improve before we start making our case–it will never be good enough for them to want to give us what we know our clients need.
  • And, second, to some extent, this fiscal crisis, at the state level, has been exacerbated by intentional policy choices by state legislators, who also have the power to make it much better, if they would make decisions like decoupling the state and federal tax codes (meaning that the tax breaks enacted at the federal level wouldn’t reduce our state revenues) or rolling back or even just postponing some of the tax cuts enacted in recent years. Retired state representative Ray Cox (R-Bonner Springs) was fond of calling such tax increases “tax restorations”, since that term more correctly reflects the fact that we have decimated our own revenue base with a series of major tax cuts, particularly during the ‘good times’ of the 1990s.

    But, the reality is that, right now, social work advocates are battling to try to minimize the damage, and that the advocacy that we need to do to put revenue enhancements back on the table and to make social services so valuable that they will be sacred is going to really come into play next year, not in the next two days. 

    Some thoughts, then, about how to best prepare ourselves for these perennial budget battles, with hopes that these lessons will even serve us well in these lean years.

    1. States have to balance their budgets; unlike the federal government, they can’t run continual deficits, which means that we have to acknowledge the need for tax ‘restorations’ to the extent that our state’s needs are now outstripping our fiscal capacity.

    2.  The portion of the budget over which social service advocates have to battle is a relatively small one: for fiscal year 2009 (which ends on June 30th, 2009), 51% of the state general fund went to elementary and secondary education and another ~13% to higher education. When you consider our mandatory obligations under Medicaid and the costs of just keeping a government running, not to mention corrections costs (which, we social workers know, could be decreased somewhat by better investment in people at risk), we’re left with about 15% of the budget, or approximately $900 million, which sounds like a lot, but when you divide it among programs for older adults, people with disabilities, low-income energy assistance, childcare subsidies, community mental health centers, and the dozens of other programs funded through SGF, you’re not left with a lot. Argument number #2 for increasing the size of the pie!

    3. We’re no longer talking about ‘trimming the waste.’ We hear this a lot, right, about social services–that we can supposedly absorb these cuts because it just means working more efficiently? The reality is that, at this point, institutions have already trimmed as much as they can. The cuts being considered today (the Senate version would cut an addition $138 million from the $13 billion budget; the House’s latest effort was a $247 million cut that has been delayed because of massive opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans) would mean layoffs of employees, possible furloughs, cuts in classroom expenditures, elimination of some social service programs entirely (I got an email yesterday that the Respite Care and Family Subsidy Programs are two likely to be eliminated if these cuts go through), and increased waiting lists for others. There’s only so much we can cut (Argument #3 for looking at revenue restorations..are you convinced yet?).

    4. We have to stop fighting each other. Too often when I was in the Kansas Legislature, i would hear advocates for one vulnerable constituency make the case, implicitly or explicitly, that their population was more worthy than another (“kids are the future”–so what are you saying about older adults? or “people with disabilities need help through no fault of their own”–so what are you saying about people in the corrections system?). We can’t do this–there are enough voices attacking the need for social services altogether without us adding our voices to that chorus. That’s why I always advise students to answer the “so where should we get the money?” question like this: “As the state legislator, it’s your job to figure out how to meet all of the state’s obligations to its citizens. I know that these are not easy decisions, but the benefits of investing in (fill in the blank for your program/constituency) are worth it.” The moment you say, “maybe you could cut xzy,” you have earned yourself an enemy who should, rightfully, be your ally.

    I’m including a link to an article by a great statehouse reporter, Scott Rothschild of the Lawrence Journal World, that outlines some of the current debate. The House is expected to take up the budget today, and legislators need to hear from social workers that drastic cuts are unacceptable. We need to put revenue enhancements, like the decoupling and the postponement of the franchise tax cut, back on the table. I talked with my state representative yesterday and, somehow, knowing that I did my part might make the next year’s budget a little less bitter.

    Here’s the number to call to reach your state representative. Hopefully you’ll get a busy signal the first time you try:

    1-800-432-3924

    May 6, 2009 LJW article on state budget

  • One response to “The Kansas Budget Deficit Battle (Cliff’s Notes for Social Workers)

    1. As always you show a clear path to social workers joining the discussion. The cuts being made to education in our state and across the nation are going to be hard to face. Therefore it is more important that as social workers, we bring attention to the impact of those cuts.

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