By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.
One of the biggest obstacles to conflict resolution is the petty notion that one party has to lose in order for the other party to win. Amazingly, people (regrettably, including me) who very clearly understand and explain this common-sense concept when settling squabbles among their children can completely lose sight of it when they are engaged in a conflict. It happens in the boardroom, in personal relationships, in union negotiations and is increasingly becoming the hallmark of politics.
The budget battle raging in Topeka is a classic example, where the actions of both parties make one wonder whether it’s more important to both that the other party lose than for anyone to win. Party, in this case, refers not to Democrats and Republicans but to those who want a tax increase and those who oppose tax increases. Those pushing for a tax increase primarily do so under the premise that a tax increase is the only way to balance the budget without crippling the state’s ability to provide necessary services. Those opposed to tax increases believe they would be harmful to the economy and that further spending reductions can be made without undermining the ability to provide services. One side says no further cuts are possible, the other says they are.
But the debate really isn’t about whether spending cuts are feasible; it’s whether state spending should be increased. Those pushing for a tax increase say it’s to prevent unwarranted spending reductions, but they are really calling for a $380 million or 7% spending increase. The facts suggest that the true disagreement is over a great ideological divide over the growth of government.
Pursuit of absolute “either/or” positions will have a negative impact on citizens regardless of which side prevails. Kansas Policy Institute is among those who believe that tax increases would cost jobs, but we also believe that across-the-board spending cuts could produce undesirable results. Instead of waging ideological war, legislators should be working together to find ways we can do both: avoid harmful tax increases and prevent crippling service cuts.
By the way, Kansas employers are already absorbing a $163 million (81%) increase in unemployment premiums, so there will be a big tax increase. The budget debate will only decide if it will be even greater.
The House Appropriations Committee made some recommendations last week that are moving in the right direction of common-sense compromise. The proposal maintains total state aid to schools (but doesn’t replace approximately $172 million in declining federal aid), restores $6.9 million in welfare aid to the developmentally and physically disabled and offsets expected revenue declines by reducing state government payroll 5% through mandatory furloughs and a 1% across-the-board cut to agency operating budgets (except K-12, colleges, corrections, and human service caseloads). The plan doesn’t raise taxes and leaves a $312 million ending balance.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the House plan is that schools would still see a decline because of less federal money. There is ample evidence as provided by various Legislative Post Audit reports that schools could save a lot of money by operating more efficiently, and probably more than enough to offset the loss of federal money. On the other hand, some districts have chosen to make high-profile cuts that directly impact students (and even encouraged to do so by some education officials as a means of rallying support for tax increases), so students could suffer unnecessarily if the federal money isn’t replaced.
Alternatively, it would be interesting to see how schools would respond to a proposal that would maintain total state aid and replace federal stimulus money, which could be accomplished by selling some state assets (an option that has already been vetted). Schools would be held harmless, the State would be increasing its portion of aid and taxpayers wouldn’t have to suffer a tax increase. Total per-pupil aid is currently $12,225 and 26% higher than five years ago; most taxpayers would probably find that to be a pretty good outcome in today’s economy.
It may not be everything schools want and it may be more than some legislators feel is necessary, but as Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”
Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good budget theme. Maybe it should be the legislature’s official song.