In Kansas, a great flywheel has been set in motion, dragging the citizenry inexorably along the governor’s Glide Path to Zero, that no income tax Nirvana (for the high brackets), a glorious, infamous “experiment,” (as the governor put it) that has a legislature scrambling to fill a $400 million budget deficit, a wonder in red ink and record-setter for prairie sink-holes.
A report last month from the Kansas Center for Economic Growth reveals that continued state tax cuts and budget reductions have prevented recovery of critical investments in schools and strained the ability of communities to provide “the level of services that create a strong work force, sense of community and high quality of life…”.
Schools, of course, have been hit hardest. Early examples include four school districts that applied to the Legislature for special funding, citing extraordinary needs after the legislature cut local operating and maintenance aid for schools. The Concordia, Skyline (Pratt County), Louisburg and Lebo Waverly School Districts have requested roughly $630,000 to cover losses in at-risk and low-enrollment aid due to cuts built into the block grant funding that replaced the state’s former school finance formula. Block grant funding does not consider sudden enrollment shifts, equipment failures or other emergencies that can affect local budgets. Skyline needs money to meet its June payroll.
In addition, Concordia and Twin Valley School Districts are cutting their school years by up to two weeks. Smoky Valley schools will close a week early. The Haven School District, citing budget constraints, will close Mount Hope Elementary School for good.
And we noted last week that Winfield USD 465 will close an intermediate school for 5th and 6th graders; Eudora USD 291, east of Lawrence, faces enrollment increases plus the attendant operating expenses with its budget cut and capped.
The pressures on local schools are deep, and wide. How long can they hold on?
STATE AID to libraries has been cut 23 percent in the past two years. One casualty, the Blue Skyways online program, once connected about 200 communities and every county in Kansas. The student tutoring program, assisting students with homework outside school, was also scrapped. These are among services that once helped Kansans connect with each other, and with jobs and other opportunities across the state.
The thrust of the Center’s report has linked the effect of state tax policy to decreased funding in several areas, including aid to local governments, down $1 billion since 2008; education is down $200 million this year, with classroom aid cut another $155 million between 2015 and 2017); corrections, at nearly $20 million, is up 10 percent in the last fiscal year, but still below pre-recession levels.)
The report found that Kansas counties, especially in rural regions, are increasing property taxes simply to maintain current services. Since the no-income tax plan was launched, 71 counties have increased property taxes at least ten percent since 2010, the report said. Of the 20 highest increases (some more than 20 percent), 17 were in rural counties. – among them Hamilton, Grant, Haskell, Morton and Stevens Counties in the southwest, and Smith, Osborne, Mitchell, Lincoln, Cloud and Ottawa in north central Kansas.
Consider one essential – roads. The Department of Transportation reported in late April that the state’s highway fund will be dry in two years or less. The projected cash flow balance at the end of June, 2017, is estimated at $6.9 million. Ending balances even in bad years are typically $100 million. But in recent years, lawmakers have transferred billions from the fund to pay non-transportation expenses, much of them forced by large cuts in state income taxes.
“When the state reduces its investment, local communities are forced to make up the difference, usually in the form of property tax increases,” said the Center’s director, Annie McKay. “That, combined with cuts to schools and safe neighborhoods, makes it very difficult to attract people and jobs to Kansas. We should stop and think if this is really the path we want to pursue.”