Taking the ‘irresponsible’ route

By Rod Haxton, editor

It would be nice to imagine that strong ideological beliefs can be put aside long enough to allow for common sense.

Oh, yes, but to imagine the impossible.

As we were recently reminded by State Sen. Ty Masterson (R-Andover) and Rep. Gene Suellentrop (R-Wichita), who has time for rational thought when going with the flow of political ideology requires so much less brain power.

We were fortunate enough to receive an e-mail from Masterson, chairman of the lofty Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Suellentrop, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who felt it was time to set the record straight about the state’s finances.

We could talk about how the tax cut plan supported by the governor and conservative lawmakers has led to a downgrading of the state’s credit rating. Or we could discuss how state revenue won’t support the existing budget.

Rather than explain how the state plans to deal with a looming crisis, Masterson and Suellentrop decided to take us down the path of unicorns and six-foot rabbits by challenging the “narrative that the income tax reductions have caused property tax increases.”

“This is simply not true as there is no direct correlation between the two,” they claimed.

Think about that for a moment.

Let’s say, for example, that your employer cut your hours (thus your salary) so you take a second part-time job in order to pay the bills. As a matter of logic, the necessity of getting a second job was a consequence of what happened with the first job.

But, according to Masterson and Suellentrop, the decision to get a second job in order to pay the mortgage and keep putting food on the table is, in no way, directly correlated with the fact that you’re getting less pay in your first job.

That’s according to the world as viewed by Masterson and Suellentrop.

Oh, but it gets even better.

On the outside chance that taxpayers may have noticed an increase in their property taxes, it has nothing to do with cuts in state spending. Instead, the fault lies with “locally elected officials” who don’t know how to “hold the line on spending.”

Since Gov. Brownback has already called dibs on blaming Obama for everything that’s gone wrong, Masterson and Suellentrop apparently decided to go a different direction and cast blame on locally elected officials.

To back up their blame-game strategy, Masterson and Suellentrop, point out that property tax revenue has increased every year since 1998, regardless of state budget decisions. We won’t argue with that. Likewise, we might add that wages, utilities, groceries, fuel, etc., have - generally speaking - increased every year since 1998, regardless of state budget decisions.

That makes the statement by Masterson and Suellentrop either pure ignorance or . . . pure ignorance.

Rising property taxes aren’t a result of irresponsible elected officials in our counties, cities and school districts. It’s a recognition that, whether we like it or not, the cost of living continues to increase. And it’s acknowledgement that local citizens expect certain things - like classrooms to be staffed with teachers and streets without potholes.

Regardless of what the state decides to do - or not do with respect to funding - local officials are more accountable to the taxpayers and the demand that a certain level of services be maintained. The property tax remains the primary revenue source for making that happen.

 

Masterson and Suellentrop decided to zero in on education, pointing out that the state is spending $400 million more on K-12 public education now than it was in 2009 - and that education spending has increased each year under Brownback.

We’ll acknowledge that $400 million isn’t chump change. But neither is that an indication of whether or not the legislature - and Republicans in particular - are doing all they can - or should - for public education. That claim by the two legislators overlooks three things.

1) Basic state aid per pupil bottomed out in 2011-12 (Brownback’s first year) at $3,780 following the Great Recession. It had nowhere to go but up . . . barely. In the three years since the 2011-12 school year, basic state aid has increased by just $72 - or 1.9%.

2) Legislators haven’t been completely oblivious to their handling of state education funding. During this same time they’ve given school district more flexibility to increase property taxes to offset the loss of state funds. Or, in the thinking of Masterson and Suellentrop, local boards of education have been allowed to further demonstrate their inability to “hold the line.”

3) Basic state aid today, at $3,852 per pupil, is the lowest it’s been since the 2000-01 school year when it stood at $3,820. That’s 15 years ago.

Here are some other numbers to consider.

In 2008-09, total state aid coming to the Scott County school district was $5,339,904. In the 2013-14 school year it was $4,486,707. That’s a loss of more than $850,000.

And Scott County is one of the “lucky” school districts. Our enrollment was rising during this time. Imagine how severe the loss of state funding would have been if we’d have been losing enrollment like many rural districts.

Property taxes being levied by USD 466 in the 2014 budget amounted to nearly $5.8 million. In the 2015 budget the district has increased that to just over $6.5 million - an increase of $739,505. That is what “irresponsible” boards of education are forced to do when they want to keep the lights on and pay their staff.

Masterson and Suellentrop can say more state money is going to Kansas schools, but the facts offer a different story when you look at individual districts. That makes the claim made by Masterson and Suellentrop both accurate and misleading.

Simply increasing state spending doesn’t mean it is either adequate or keeping pace with the actual cost of providing a quality education.

We are staring at a serious budget crisis in Kansas. The bond rating firms of Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s see it happening. The Legislative Research Department sees it coming. Anyone with a calculator can see it.

The only ones in denial are Brownback and his fellow ideologues in the legislature. Instead, they’re standing under the lamp post whistling a happy tune in the company of six-foot rabbits.

Now who’s being irresponsible?

Rod Haxton can be reached at editor@screcord.com

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