- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Kansas City Star, June 21

Empty excuses for Kansas budget woes:

Facts - not false bravado from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and others - matter most in reviewing the state’s dire financial situation.

After the Legislature approved deep income tax cuts that took effect in 2013, revenues have plunged. In recent days, the governor and others have tried to obfuscate this fiscal disaster.

Focus on what happened Thursday, when Brownback and a bipartisan group of top lawmakers agreed to borrow $675 million to cover bills early in the 2015 fiscal year, starting July 1.

That’s a huge leap from the $300 million borrowed in June 2013 to pay the current fiscal year’s bills.

Borrowing more money is bad, right? That’s what Brownback emphasized in a statement last year on this very topic:

“When we first came into office we were borrowing $700 million to basically operate the state, to float the state for a year. Now, we’re down to $300 million. So we continue to improve the fiscal situation of the state, which is really good news for the people of Kansas.”

But now that the situation has dramatically reversed, Brownback isn’t emphasizing the costs and risks tied to such a large amount of borrowing.

On Thursday, the governor returned to his unsupported claims, repeating his upbeat view of the Kansas economy, despite the harsh facts staring Kansans in the face.

Brownback said a dip in revenue had always been expected.

But it sure wasn’t this big. Plus, why didn’t the governor and Legislature make adequate spending cuts to better match lower expected incomes?

He once again claimed President Barack Obama’s tax policies had lowered expected receipts and surprised state officials.

Yet income tax revenues were down only 7 percent across the country the first four months of 2014 - but fell 24 percent in Kansas.

The governor praised the state’s admirably low unemployment rate.

That’s great, but it hasn’t done much to boost state revenues.

Brownback pointed to the “record number of people working in the state.”

That ignores the fact many other states have created jobs at a faster rate than Kansas in the last three years.

New data this week also didn’t paint an encouraging picture for the state.

The federal Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages report showed Kansas employment grew by 1.6 percent in 2013 - below the national average of 1.8 percent. Worse, the average weekly wage in Kansas declined by .4 percent, while the U.S. average stayed flat. Kansas’ wage figure of $832 a week was the 13th worst in the nation.

Brownback should stop the doubletalk and tedious excuses. They weaken his credibility and provide false messages to the public.


The Manhattan Mercury, June 19

Tuition increases add to students’ load:

It’s tough to spin a 5.2 percent tuition increase as “restrained,” but that’s what Fred Logan, a Leawood attorney who is chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, did on June 18.

He said that the tuition increases the Regents approved are the lowest for each university since 2001 and added, “I thought this was a year of restraint in tuition increases, and I believe that these are restrained.”

About all that makes the 5.2-percent increase for instate undergraduates at K-State restrained is that, according to Mr. Logan, all the increases for the last 13 years have been larger. The latest increase dwarfs the inflation rate. Yet instate students in Manhattan will fare better than their comrades at KSU-Salina, who will pay 5.7 percent more.

Meanwhile, incoming freshmen at the University of Kansas will pay 3.4 percent more, but because of KU’s tuition “compact,” their tuition will not change for four years; KU tuition for in-state transfer students will rise by 4.6 percent. Elsewhere, instate undergrads will pay 4.9 percent more at Wichita State, 5.6 percent more at Emporia State, 5.5 percent more at Pittsburgh State and 2.5 percent more at Fort Hays State.

All except the tuition increase at Fort Hays exceed the 3.7 percent increase in funding the Regents institutions will receive from the state in the coming year. For context, present state funding is 4.2 percent less than the Regents universities received eight years ago.

Casting a positive light on a lamentable record of state funding, Kenny Wilk, a regent and former moderate Republican legislator, said, “We’ve had stable funding coming from the state.”

The most appropriate observation on state funding and tuition rates came from Tim Emert, another regent who is former moderate Republican legislator. He said, “We continue to put the burden on parents and students and student debt. I don’t think the Legislature deserves any kudos for quote stable unquote funding.”

Neither do we. Although the Legislature has generally approved modest increases in state funding for higher education, legislators over the years have dramatically scaled back the state’s percentage of funding to the point that the public universities in Kansas are becoming increasingly privately funded entities.

And given that lawmakers’ priorities have shifted to historic tax cuts that undermine funding for all state programs and services, the state’s share of higher education funding will continue to decline and the burden on students and their families will continue to increase.


The Clay Center Dispatch, June 20

Surprise power grab:

A new Kansas law requires county treasurers to turn over the 20 mills property tax revenue they collect for local schools to the Kansas treasurer for distribution.

Many legislators weren’t aware of the provision, buried in a bill dealing with mineral severance taxes and oil and gas depletion funds, until after it passed. Yet it represents a power grab by the State that should be of concern to their constituents.

Now for the first time, Clay County Treasurer Christine Swaim will send at least $1.3 million in property tax revenue to the state instead of directly to USD-379. The district also receives general state aid in addition to the property tax revenue.

Republican leaders, who hustled the provision through a conference committee without general debate, said the change is necessary to establish an “audit trail” they say is required by the recent Supreme Court order on school finance, an excuse attorney John Robb, who represents school districts in the state, termed “ridiculous.”

The Supreme Court didn’t indicate any concerns about the existing system for tracking property taxes going to schools, Robb said.

The effect will be to create a half billion dollar pool of money for education that will be controlled by the state.

Even though it won’t be easy for the legislature to raid those property tax funds to bail out their own budget mess, it will certainly be easier for them to attach strings to - or delay - the return of the money without interference from the courts.

Given the State’s erratic history handling money held for other units of government and Kansas’ current financial deficit, school superintendents have reason to be concerned.

During the financial crisis, Gov. Mark Parkinson reduced state payments to schools as tax revenues plummeted.

Kansas also has been late with its payments to schools in the past.

Then there’s the legislature’s history with the Local Ad Valorem Tax Reduction money, once collected by the state and rebated to counties, that now has entirely disappeared. Clay County used to get $500,000 of that money, $300,000 going specifically for roads and bridges.

Today, property taxes make up the loss.

Neither is this good news for local community banks for whom the school property tax funds have been a significant source of deposits. The Kansas Bankers Association, which is supporting Brownback, can only hope the funds are returned, and promptly.

We believe the change has nothing to do with audit trails. It is about giving the appearance that more school funding is coming from the state instead of local property taxpayers. It is about control of education by right-wing Brownback supporters. And it is about punishing school districts and the courts for daring to challenge the legislature’s funding decisions.

Given the legislature’s recent financial record and penchant for political revenge and micro-managing education, school districts, banks and property taxpayers all have very good reason to be worried.


The Hutchinson News, June 18

Lawmaker’s email shows ugly truth about lobbyist influence:

Thanks to one upset lawmaker, Kansans got a rare look recently at the inner workings of Topeka - and the tenuous relationship between lawmakers and high-dollar lobbyists.

And there wasn’t a thing at all pretty about it.

This year, Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, didn’t receive an endorsement from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, something that has come automatically for the lawmaker during the past 12 years. But this year there was a slight wrinkle: Schwab didn’t fall in line with the Kansas Chamber and the Koch Industries lobbyists that sought a repeal of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utility companies to produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

In response, Schwab fired off a letter to his supporters outlining his suspicions for why the Kansas Chamber had turned its back on him after so many years of endorsements. By Schwab’s account, it boils down to this: Koch Industries, which makes much of its money from oil and gas, wanted a repeal of the RPS. The Kansas Chamber followed suit and withdrew its annual support for Schwab and nearly any lawmaker who didn’t unquestionably support the RPS repeal. Perhaps more telling is the way in which Schwab described the treatment, and thinly veiled threats leveled at him by those who sought the repeal.

Wind energy was one issue pushed by lobbyists and think tanks, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Education, legal reform, tax policy and a variety of other issues all have drawn the interest of groups like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity. And on each of those issues, those groups ensure lawmakers know how they’re expected to vote, and the consequences of dissent.

And remember, Schwab’s no liberal - he’s a bona fide conservative, who regularly votes in the interests of Kansas businesses, enough to win years of endorsements from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. But this year, when Schwab had the nerve to question if Kansas businesses truly sought the repeal, he found himself crosswise with some of the most powerful political players in the state - despite large support for wind energy from businesses and residents in Kansas.

So let’s put aside all this talk about whether issues fall on the conservative or liberal side of the isle and face the fact that the political structure in Kansas has been turned on its head and does not serve the interests of most Republicans, Democrats or independents.

When a lawmaker says that a lobbyist “lit into” him for raising a question about who supported the RPS repeal, there’s no clearer sign that lobbyists view lawmakers as tools who work for them. When those same groups feel empowered to affect and influence elections and are willing to support unknown and untested candidates, we should know that they are not interested in a government that represents Kansans.

A government that derives its power from the state’s richest corporations can never serve the interests of the people. And a Legislature that falls victim and wilts to threats and bullying from high-dollar lobbyists has ceded the authority given to it by the people of Kansas.

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