Budget dilemma can be solved

As had been widely assumed, last week’s pessimistic revenue projections for the rest of the state’s current fiscal year means deeper cuts in spending for education at all levels or tax increases.
The economic seers predict that tax revenues will fall so far that the budget approved by the Legislature for the current fiscal year and the 2010 fiscal year that begins July 1 will be out of balance by $328 million. So the budget must be revised.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and fellow Democrats are proposing to raise revenues by counting on $50 million in fees from prospective developers of state-owned casinos as income in 2010 and diverting $27 million in liquor tax revenues that normally would go to cities and counties.
“Their ideas also include freezing estate and corporate franchise taxes at their current levels instead of phasing them out by 2011, a promise made in better economic times,” Associated Press writer John Hanna reported.
“ ... If legislators adopted all of the revenue proposals Sebelius is backing and decoupled the state tax code from the federal code, the changes would boost revenues by $257 million. And that would still be $71 million short of eliminating the 2010 deficit,” Hanna calculated.
Gov. Sebelius and Democrat leaders in the Legislature remain committed to sparing the public schools and state universities from cuts if that can be done. Because about 70 percent of the state budget goes to education, steady funding can be accomplished only by increasing taxes, foregoing tax reductions or a combination of the two.
Observers say there is little support in the Legislature for a general tax increase because, they argue, raising taxes would delay an economic recovery.
The first response to that is that forcing universities to raise tuition and the public schools to downgrade would not only delay economic recovery in the immediate future, but also would short-change today’s young people who need a first-class education to prepare themselves for today’s knowledge-based economy.
The second response is to note that while $71 million is a lot of money, measured by Iola standards, it’s just a drop in a $5,880,000,000 budget bucket. Determined to keep the Kansas education system whole from kindergarten through the university level, the Legislature could find a combination of small increases in fees and taxes that could meet that goal without injury to the Kansas economy or measurable pain to Kan-sas taxpayers.
A change in attitude would be required. Rather than starting from rock-hard no-more-taxes orthodoxy, our lawmakers (may their tribe increase and their flocks flourish) should ask themselves how best Kansas can preserve and improve its public schools and state universities to serve Kansas and its people well.
That realignment of priorities is all it would take to resolve the state’s budget dilemma in the best possible way.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.