Speaking at at the regular weekly meeting of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on May 22, 2009, Kansas House of Representatives member Jason Watkins addressed the Kansas budget, Kansas Republicans, and school spending.
Watkins represents House district 105, which includes parts of west and northwest Wichita. He is Vice-Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which was the center of some fast-paced legislative action this year as it worked on the Kansas budget.
Regarding the budget during the past legislative session, which ended in May: Watkins felt there was an opportunity for reform that the legislature should have taken advantage of. The injection of federal stimulus money, however, reduced the urgency of the Kansas budget crisis, and no reform took place.
Kansas received about $1.8 billion in federal stimulus, with about $1 billion under the control of the legislature or the governor. The rest went directly to state government agencies.
About $50 million, Watkins said, went to the Kansas Weatherization Office. That office has one man on its staff, and he told Watkins he had no idea how to spend all that money.
True budget reform has been delayed, but is needed.
In 2008, Watkins said he had four children in the public school system. “Based on what the KNEA and the other education lobbyists told us this year, my kids must have gotten a horrible education in 2008. … Because the cuts we were talking about making would have taken K-12 education back to 2008 levels.” But the spending lobby painted a picture of failing schools if these cuts were made. Schools could absorb no cuts, they said.
As a result, Kansas was forced to make large cuts in spending on programs such as assistance for the mentally and physically disabled in order to “empire build” in the Kansas public school system system.
Addressing the need for budget reform, Watkins said that the present system, where each year’s budget is based on the past year’s plus an increase, produces anomalies. He illustrated a case where an agency might be able to get some federal money if the state spends some if its own. It might be, say, a three-year program. So the legislature authorizes and appropriates the funds.
Then three years later the federal money is gone, so the program ends because the state funding alone is not sufficient for continuation. But the money the state allocated is still in the agency’s base budget — even through the program no longer exists.
We need either zero-based budgeting or performance-based budgeting, Watkins said. Every state that’s done zero-based budgeting, however, has backed away from it, he said. There must be some type of performance measure, however.
Watkins also said Kansas needs a legislative budget office. Presently the legislature receives a budget from the governor and works from that.
In 2012, Watkins said the Kansas budget will face a huge challenge, as that’s the first budget year without the federal stimulus money.
The budget that finally passed this year is full of problems, Watkins said. The budget was not debated on the floor of the Kansas House of Representatives, as that body simply voted to concur with the bill that the Senate passed. A group of moderate Republicans decided to team with Democrats to accomplish this, he said.
With Republicans controlling the legislature, how did that happen? Watkins said “We do have people in the Republican Party who are Republicans in name only.” Republicans can disagree on issues, he said, but they shouldn’t vote with the Democrats 95% of the time. There are a group of about 16 Republican House members that constantly vote with the Democrats, and that produces a number large enough to pass legislation.
In responding to a question about new Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson, Watkins said that while Parkinson said he’s not going to run for governor is 2010, no one’s asked him whether he’s going to run for senate in 2010. The compromise on the coal plant that Parkinson agreed to may have laid the groundwork for a state-side campaign.
A question asked how does the school spending lobby have so much power? Watkins told how his opponent last year had never even voted. The KNEA gave him $500 (the maximum amount allowed) for the primary election, and that amount again in the general election. Yet, Watkins said his opponent never campaigned.
It’s also not just the KNEA. There are other allied special interest groups. If the Democrats need something, these are the groups they go to.
Watkins said the school spending lobby has a powerful argument unless people are presented with the facts and figures. That is, of course: “I’m for kids. Why do you hate them?” Because we have a disengaged public, Watkins said, people go along with this argument, which helps to further the cause and power of the education lobby. There is no question this lobby is the “bully in the Capitol.”
He also said that the media doesn’t want to fight the school system. He told how one spending advocacy group refused to speak out at a meeting because they didn’t want to get the “schools made at them.” This is more evidence of how powerful the school spending lobby is.