The Sunflower State Needs Reseeding!

Kansans, we’ve got problems. And it’s not just that the budget is tough. We’ve known that for a long time.

Our biggest problems are the failure of many Kansans, including many of those elected officials charged with representing us, to recognize precisely how bad it is, and what that means about the options that are and are not really viable at this point; and a lack of political will and strategic vision to make the hard choices that must be made.

This certainly isn’t unique to this year or to our state. Moral courage, is, in general, in short supply throughout public life–NOT just among members of the state legislature. We’d all like to get as much as we can with as little pain as possible and, writ large, that can lead to some pretty appalling public policy decisions.

But, still, as I head to Topeka this week to work with a few dozen bright, aspiring student journalists as they challenge our elected officials to think of the future, I’m hopeful.

Because history shows that sometimes the most amazing things happen when our backs are against the wall, when everyone knows that the only avenues left are pretty bad, and when there’s a collective sense that we’re in this together, as much as we wish that we were somewhere (anywhere!) else.

Here’s how bad it is. At a legislative forum I attended two weeks ago (so, yes, this is tardy–ear infections in young children are evil!), I had this exchange with a senior senator closely involved in budget negotiations:

  • Kansas, as currently laid out, has a $5.3 billion budget in state general funds (which excludes those special-use funds, as my advanced policy students remember) for this year. That’s AFTER a cut of approximately $1 billion last year. With a “b”.
  • Despite those cuts from last year, to just keep everything going this year (with absolutely no program growth), we’ll still run $250-350 million short this fiscal year.
  • Okay, so that sounds like, “we need to make some cuts, but not as much as the year before, so…you know, we knew it was going to be a tough year, but everyone needs to tighten our belts and…”
  • Wait. That ~$300 million needs to get cut out of the ~15% of the budget that’s really in play. Here’s the deal. We can’t cut K-12 education anymore without having to give back the stimulus dollars that are tied to our commitment to keep school funding at at least the 2006 levels, which is where we are now. We can’t afford to give that stimulus money back, so we can’t cut K-12 education any more. And Medicaid costs are essentially out of our hands; Kansas is doing very little optional with Medicaid right now anyway, and the federal government determines eligibility and the level of state responsibility.
  • So, then, we’re left with a reality of needing to cut that $250-350 million out of approximately $800 million. And WE CANNOT. We’d have to close courts, release violent offenders, dismantle remaining safety net programs, leave dangerous roads unrepaired, lay off thousands of state workers…you can’t pretend to still have a state if you eliminate almost 40% of what the state does, especially when that’s on top of 17% cuts just the year before.

    And all of this brings us back to this question of vision and will and courage.

    Because we desperately need a restoration of our tax base. No one wants a tax increase. I know.

    But I don’t see another way out, that doesn’t include the decimation of the public infrastructure that, really, makes us a civilized society. Taxes are the price we pay for that, and we forgot that all too easily, and too often, in the boom years of the late 1990s…it’s time to rebuild.

    And you know what? My hopefulness is warranted, I really think. In the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with 7 members of the legislature, from both political parties, who have admitted that many of the past tax cuts were mistakes, called for a revision of exemptions, and offered some specific ideas for possible tax increases. Several have even referenced that this session feels a bit different, because of the desperation, and that, by April, we could start to see a deal emerge.

    But, as that senior senator pointed out, those of us whose work depends on a strong tax base need to get working. Not one of the nonprofit legislative agendas I’ve seen has included a call for increased revenues, even though that’s undoubtedly the most important policy position the legislature could take this session.

    We need to talk with our grassroots base about the need for more revenues, and the need for tax justice. We have to build pressure to undo the excesses of the past decade. And we have to be in the process, stressing that all tax increases are NOT created equal, and articulating a vision of what tax fairness looks like.

    Things will get better (first, they’ll get worse, because we won’t have that stimulus money in FY2012!). But they won’t get as much better as they should if we don’t take advantage of this political opportunity to get the impossible done.

    Ad astra per aspera, right?

    Let’s go.

  • 6 responses to “The Sunflower State Needs Reseeding!

    1. Hey Melinda –

      On the other side of the Missouri River, we are facing a similar challenge to raise revenue for the state. Would the advocacy community consider pushing for a tax on internet commerce? Its getting strong consideration in Jeff City, maybe it will in Topeka as well

      • Jerry, great to hear from you! What does the discussion on Internet commerce taxation look like in Jeff City at this point? Kansas has relatively recent history with struggles with the destination sales tax and logistical problems in implementing it effectively and efficiently, but the Internet is certainly tied into the declining usefulness of the sales tax, with the continual erosion of the sales tax base. I’m in general not a fan of sales taxes given their regressivity, but certainly an Internet sales tax would be targeted more at higher-income taxpayers and, in fact, could make the sales tax base considerably less regressive (reversing the trend of the past several years). What role is CCO playing in the debate on the revenue side, and how are the partners emerging/aligning? I’m always glad to hear about what’s happening in MO, since Topeka can be a fairly insular place.

    2. I could not agree with you more. But I want to tell you about something interesting. Today I was watching Channel 8 here in Lawrence, KSNT. They allowed the head of Americans for Prosperity to have a five minute on-air interview to discuss the organizations’s work and website, as if they were some neutral group, whose only purpose is to provide information. They’re not! But their anti-tax message is easily absorbed when it is given a free ride on the information highway. Outrageous.

      • In my opinion, the progressive community totally missed the ball on AFP in the very beginning. Their platform was so extreme that a lot of us assumed that they’d never really get much traction beyond the anti-taxers in the legislature, but now they have a legitimacy and an appeal that far transcends their ideology. The legislature routinely has them give “background” information, and, like so many of the groups on the far right, they have a think tank and assorted academics to carry their water, too. And, of course, it becomes much harder to effectively combat their messages when they have so insinuated themselves into the power structure in Topeka. You should write to the station and complain!

    3. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Sunflower State Needs Reseeding! « Classroom to Capitol --

    4. Oh believe me, I called them, while it was on the air. I’ll never hear back, though.

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