Recent Kansas Editorials
The Kansas City Star, Oct. 15
Kansas school funding crisis won’t be solved by legislators’ bellyaching and threats
Here we go again.
Another unanimous Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school funding has some lawmakers screaming about a court run amok. Once again, they’re threatening a “constitutional crisis,” meaning they would defy the court and refuse to spend the additional dollars the judges ordered.
State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, brandished raw childishness about all this, saying he hopes the state, under the leadership of soon-to-be-governor Jeff Colyer, finds a way “to tell the court to stuff it.”
Really? Stomping and snorting about school funding is getting awfully old, and it does nothing to move the state forward when it comes to solving an extremely difficult problem.
Efforts to tackle that challenge will only be undermined by needless threats about the court and its authority to do what it just did. The court’s power is spelled out in the state constitution, which Fitzgerald has sworn to uphold. Threatening another constitutional crisis adds another needless layer of tension and distraction at a time when the state needs focus and determination.
These days, the court no longer sticks a dollar figure on its proposed remedies because conservative lawmakers, like Fitzgerald, have chosen to politicize those figures as yet more evidence that the court is overstepping its authority.
But the best guess for settling this matter is another $500 million to $600 million. No question that’s a lot of money. For context, this year the Legislature added $488 million over two years to its new funding formula. But the judges wrote that lawmakers failed on two fronts when it comes to suitable funding: adequacy, or the overall amount being spent on schools, and equity, which looks at whether that money is fairly divided between wealthy and poor districts.
To dozens of lawmakers under the Capitol dome, the ruling was no surprise.
Lawyers representing the plaintiff school districts argued convincingly that funding in recent years remained inadequate. In June, they pointed to numbers that showed the state was spending $4,006 a student. A decade ago, lawmakers agreed to a base level of $4,492 per student. Adjusted for inflation, that figure should be $5,035 today.
Fitzgerald should look at those numbers. Telling the court to stuff it may sound appealing in our Trumpian times. But big talk won’t change anything.
The one who’s going to be stuffing it is Fitzgerald, who happens to be a GOP candidate for the state’s 2nd District congressional seat next year.
Fitzgerald joins a squadron of Republican lawmakers over the years who have rattled their sabers in pointless anger over court rulings on school finance. A similar showdown came in 2005 when the court ordered sizable increases.
The objection then, as it is now, is that lawmakers should be making such big decisions. After all, Supreme Court judges are not elected. But courts exist for a reason, such as now when lawmakers fail to do what’s necessary to properly educate kids.
Conservative groups already had started sending mailers to voters condemning lawmakers who raised taxes in response to earlier Supreme Court rulings. Maybe those lawmakers who did the right thing should sit this one out and let the Fitzgeralds of Kansas do what’s needed. That means solving this difficult problem, which almost certainly will involve raising taxes in 2018.
That, by the way, is the election year when Fitzgerald will be seeking his promotion.
Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 16
State bungling driver’s license initiative
It’s a telling indictment of the inefficiencies of government that 10 years after the project began, the state’s new driver’s license system still isn’t online.
The multimillion-dollar computer project at the Kansas Department of Revenue is likely to be delayed once again, according to a recent Legislative Post Audit report.
The KanLicense project is a replacement for the Division of Motor Vehicles’ aging mainframe system that manages the more than 2 million Kansas driver’s licenses. It is the system law enforcement uses to track the driving records of individuals, including suspensions and revocations.
Originally planned to go online in 2012, the KanLicense program has been overrun by delays, according to the Post Audit report. Officials had hoped it would go online in January, but the report said that appears unlikely.
“We’re five years behind and we’ve put additional funds in it. It’s not a good way to do business,” said state Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the Legislative Post Audit Committee, which recently received an update on the project.
The KanLicense project was part of a larger information technology upgrade at the Division of Motor Vehicles that began in 2002. The first phase involved upgrading the system that manages vehicle titles and registrations. And when that project went online a year late in May 2012, it didn’t work properly.
The driver’s license project, the second phase, had been scheduled to go online in January 2012. In May 2014, with the project already more than two years behind schedule, the department terminated its contract with project manager 3M. The department said then it planned to complete the project in-house for $2.1 million by November 2015. But by August 2015, the project was listed as stopped. Next, the project was included in November 2015 as part of the KanLicense project at an estimated cost of $6.1 million and a completion date in December 2017.
But auditors noted that the scope of the project has changed several times since November 2015, and a key contractor on the project, MorphoTrust, has already missed several deadlines. The project’s cost has also climbed to $8.6 million.
It isn’t clear when the project will be completed or how much it will cost. The one thing that is clear is that the KanLicense project is a cautionary tale of government mismanagement.
The Topeka Capital-Journal, Oct. 14
National GOP can’t ignore Kansas
“Kansas” remains a byword for “terrible fiscal policy” in the U.S. To get some idea of how Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts are perceived throughout the country, just read a few headlines published in 2017 (from the Chicago Tribune, Forbes and The New York Times): “Epic fail of Kansas’ tax-cut plan offers a lesson for us all,” ″The great Kansas tax experiment crashes and burns,” ″Kansas tried a tax plan similar to Trump’s. It failed.”
Those words can’t be repeated often enough: Substantial tax cuts (including the elimination of all taxes on pass-through entities) failed on every level in Kansas, and Congress will be making a huge mistake if it adopts a similar proposal for the rest of the country. President Trump’s tax plan (which is supported by the GOP leadership) would create three individual tax brackets of 12 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent — down from the seven brackets that are currently in place. It would slash the top rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent and lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent.
Although the proposal wouldn’t eliminate taxes on sole proprietorships, partnerships and S corporations, it would cut their rate to 25 percent — a reduction from almost 40 percent now. Rep. Lynn Jenkins argues that the Trump plan “could not be more different” from Brownback’s experiment, but the difference is only a matter of degree. Brownback’s tax cuts were more extensive, but the principle was exactly the same. Under the Trump plan, American business owners will have a strong incentive to establish pass-through businesses just so they can take advantage of the lower rate — a phenomenon familiar to Kansans. And if we consider the logic behind the GOP plan (that reducing tax rates invariably stimulates the economy), shouldn’t it concern Republicans that Brownback’s much larger cuts didn’t generate anything close to the economic activity he anticipated?
In fact, the Kansas economy has performed much worse than the rest of the country since the tax cuts were implemented. While Brownback constantly cites the state’s low unemployment rate, he never mentions the fact that our rank on this measure has fallen from ninth when he took office to 18th today. Nor does he note our anemic GDP growth, which was around half the national rate between 2012 and 2016. He also doesn’t like talking about the rate of personal income growth in Kansas, which was 0.5 percent between 2015 and 2016 (the rate was 2.3 percent nationally). Oh, and our per-capita income as a proportion of the national total has fallen from around 103 percent in 2013 to 96 percent today.
Instead of an economic resurgence, we got crippling budget shortfalls, massive reductions in infrastructure spending, delayed payments to the state’s pension account, cuts to higher education, a downgraded credit rating and emptied reserves. Kansas lost more than $700 million in tax revenue between 2013 (when the tax cuts went into effect) and 2014, and tax receipts never recovered. Over the life of the cuts, we sacrificed billions of dollars and have almost nothing to show for it.
Jenkins is right to point out that “federal and state tax reform are not the same,” but there’s also substantial overlap. Is she really saying business owners won’t establish pass-through entities to avoid paying higher taxes? Is she saying tax cuts for the wealthy are guaranteed to generate economic activity? Is she saying none of the evidence from her own state should be heeded?