- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wichita Eagle, July 3

Denial-based budgeting has had its chance. Kansas sorely needs leaders at the Statehouse willing to make tax and other fiscal policy sustainable and fair again.

That fact was confirmed by news of another month of disappointing tax collections, and of the measures being taken to cover a $76.2 million shortfall and end the fiscal year with a technically balanced budget.

No matter how pessimistic the official expectations, they continue to be too lofty.

In April the state’s economic gurus lowered their estimates of tax revenues for fiscal year 2016 by $177 million, after having done so by $160 million in November. Yet collections missed the latest projections by $74.5 million in May and by $34.5 million in June.

So the Brownback administration disclosed Friday that $260 million was being withheld from school districts’ June payment for a few days ($75 million more than the accounting gimmick usually involves). Other millions were found by sweeping funds for highways (again), corrections and children’s programs.

The administration’s latest maneuvers follow recent decisions to take out a record $900 million certificate of indebtedness to allow internal borrowing through the new fiscal year, and to make 4 percent cuts in reimbursement rates to Medicaid providers and to funding for state universities and most state agencies.

The pattern of paying bills by diverting dollars, adding debt and delaying payments persists even though the 2015 Legislature resorted to the largest tax hike in state history. It erased income tax deductions, raised tobacco taxes and pushed the sales tax on food and everything else to a shameful 6.5 percent statewide (and to 8, 9 or 10 percent with local rates added).

Instead of shifting the tax burden to those who can least afford it, lawmakers should have bucked Gov. Sam Brownback and rolled back the part of his 2012 income tax cuts that fully exempted pass-through income for 330,000 businesses. That tax break isn’t the entire problem, but it has favored many more people than planned without producing the promised job and other economic gains.

Some of Brownback’s remaining allies argue that his leadership, as well as that of the GOP-controlled Legislature, is best measured not by the soundness of the state budget but by Kansans’ tax savings. But that savings has not been fairly shared. Nor is it prudent when the state is in a chronic state of shortfall and on watch for further credit agency downgrades.

Good legislative candidates are out there - Kansans who care more about adequately funded public schools, affordable higher education, and reliable social and other state services than they do about party lines.

Identifying and electing them should be the highest priority for voters in the Aug. 2 GOP primary and on Nov. 8.

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Salina Journal, July 1

In 1989, the Kansas Legislature passed the Senior Care Act to help elderly Kansans live independently and comfortably in their own homes. The act allocates funds to individuals and organizations that provide in-home care for Kansans who are 60 and older - this includes everything from housekeeping to assistance for people with physical disabilities.

Senior Care Act programs are administered by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services through 11 area agencies, and they serve about 4,500 Kansans.

Unfortunately for about a quarter of those beneficiaries, the Senior Care Act didn’t escape the most recent wave of budget cuts approved by Gov. Sam Brownback. Senior Care Act programs lost $2.1 million out of a $7 million budget - a 30 percent reduction. The executive director of the Kansas Association of Area Agencies on Aging and Disabilities, Janis DeBoer, calls this the “largest cut in the history of this program.” According to estimates from the 11 agencies that offer services funded by the act, the cut will have a negative effect on 1,127 seniors.

Life is difficult enough for seniors who are trying to live on their own, and the state shouldn’t eliminate services they have come to rely upon.

Proportionally, some area agencies are absorbing even larger cuts than the state average: Johnson County will see a 38 percent decrease in funding and Topeka will lose 39 percent. Jocelyn Lyons, executive director of the Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging (which operates in Shawnee, Jefferson and Douglas counties), says 128 of its 171 clients “will have their services reduced.” In Johnson County, 33 seniors have been placed on a waiting list.

The cut has had a drastic effect on the amount of in-home care that is paid for by the state - five- to six-fold reductions in subsidized caregiver hours are now common. For example, Bethel Davidson has been caring for her blind cousin and receiving state assistance that covered six hours per week. Now the state finances only five hours per month.

Considering the already-modest budgets of Senior Care Act service providers, the 30 percent reduction is preventing them from performing their most basic functions. Lyons mentioned a woman whose assistance is being lowered from 40 hours a month to five hours a month: “To get a clearer picture, for attended care services that means they will be able to receive a bath every two weeks.”

Many of the elderly Kansans who benefit from the Senior Care Act don’t have many other options for in-home care (the act was originally passed to assist seniors who didn’t qualify for Medicaid). As long as these Kansans are healthy enough to live on their own, the state government should continue to help them do so.

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Topeka Capital-Journal, June 28

Last Friday (June 24), four former Kansas governors - Bill Graves, Mike Hayden, Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin (two Republicans and two Democrats, respectively) - condemned the Brownback administration in a fundraising letter for the Save Kansas Coalition. This is the first time a bipartisan group of four ex-Kansas governors has come together to challenge the policies of a sitting governor.

No matter what you think about Brownback, such a significant rebuke warrants a sustained conversation about the direction of our state. As the Save Kansas website states: “A willingness to engage in meaningful discussion, in-depth research and critical analysis is vital to the health of the Kansas economy.” It’s also vital to the maintenance of our democratic institutions and civil society - especially in the months before a pivotal election.

The governor may not be running, but every seat in the Kansas House and Senate is contestable. Many of those seats are occupied by legislators who endorsed and enacted key elements of Brownback’s platform, including his tax cuts - about 80 percent of Republican incumbents are seeking re-election.

The elections in November will be a referendum on policies that are anathema to almost every living ex-governor on both sides of the political continuum. This should remind us of how unprecedented the past six years have been. Kansans must choose to either return to the days of moderate governance and fiscal responsibility or embrace an “experiment” that exchanged millions in tax revenue for a “shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy” that never materialized.

It’s time to figure out whether our perpetual revenue crisis is a consequence of the tax cuts passed in 2012 or poor economic growth. It’s time to decide if our massive deficit is a revenue problem or - as the Brownback administration insists - a spending problem. It’s time to determine whether our Supreme Court has faithfully interpreted the Kansas Constitution’s education funding clause.

These are among the most fundamental questions a state’s citizens can consider, and Kansans will be responsible for trying to answer them over the next few months. While this is a weighty burden, it’s also a unique opportunity. It isn’t often that citizens are given the chance to discuss first principles and make decisions that will reverberate for decades. How large should our government be? What are the proper roles of the judicial and legislative branches? How equitable should taxation be?

There isn’t a state in the country where these debates are more consequential, and as our former governors have demonstrated, this dialogue doesn’t need to be marred by partisanship and stubborn ideology. We hope this is a sign that the gravity of Kansas’ problems will catalyze a pragmatic, bipartisan search for solutions across the state.

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Lawrence Journal-World, June 29

Changes in how Kansas funds its Parents as Teachers program will result in added administrative hassles for many parents and the loss of an important service for others.

Parents as Teachers, a program that uses home visits to support parents and identify potential developmental concerns in young children, will receive the same amount of money that it received last year, but the source of that money has changed. For many years, the state funded Parents as Teachers using money from the Children’s Initiatives Fund, which is funded by the national tobacco settlement. This year, lawmakers decided they need that money for other purposes and replaced state funding for the program with federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families pool.

The problem is that TANF money comes with some strings attached, namely that any services that receive TANF funds must be available only to people who meet certain federal guidelines. Starting on Friday, Parents as Teachers services will be available only to families who meet one of 19 eligibility standards that include factors like income, health and education levels.

Not only does that mean a loss of services for some families, it creates a whole new batch of administrative requirements for families and Parents as Teachers staff who now must complete all the necessary paperwork to prove they qualify for the services. Time that could be spent concentrating on young children now will be spent jumping through administrative hoops to ensure continued funding. Officials also fear that even some parents who qualify for services won’t want to provide documentation that they are struggling financially.

Some local Parents as Teachers programs say they hope to maintain play groups and networking events open to any family who wants to participate, but home visits will have to be restricted to families who meet the federal guidelines. Although local funds can be used to serve families who don’t qualify for TANF, a portion of that money will be eaten up by administrative and facilities costs that can’t be covered by the federal funds. Parents as Teachers could consider charging people who don’t qualify for TANF for services, but that also would add new administrative costs.

Parents as Teachers officials say one of the reasons the program has been so successful is that it offered services without labels based on income or other factors. Those days are over. Parents as Teachers is still a great program but state spending decisions have added significant complications to their ability to serve their clients.

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