A moral dilemma for Kansans

By Rod Haxton, editor

It was author Thomas Frank who first asked, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” when questioning why people in this state vote for lawmakers who enact laws that are not in the best interests of the majority of our citizens.

Rather than getting closer to the answer, we seem to have steered onto a dark path that has led us to wonder what has happened to those values that we once felt were part of being a Kansan.

Kansas lawmakers have stolen money from public education, denied health care to the poor by refusing to expand Medicaid coverage, pushed more Kansans off public assistance rolls and now they are considering cuts to early childhood programs in the state.

They are doing this in order to protect the wealthiest in Kansas and many not-so-wealthy who are the beneficiaries of a tax cut that many didn’t ask for and who realize that their good fortune is coming at the expense of their schools and the poorest among us.

This can no longer be seen as a political issue. This isn’t about being a Democrat, a Republican, a member of the Tea Party or a socialist.

This is about doing what’s right. And it’s about knowing when something is terribly wrong.

Kansas has failed to meet revenue estimates for 11 of the past 12 months. The amount of money that the state is expected to collect in tax revenue over the next two years has been cut by $350 million.

We can continue to debate what got us into this mess. Tax cuts that are costing the state an estimated $1 billion a year are certainly a huge factor, though you’ll never hear Gov. Brownback or budget director Shawn Sullivan admit to that. They prefer blaming lower ag commodity prices, plummeting oil prices and the fact that Colorado has mountains and legal marijuana and we don’t.

We have no control over ag prices, oil and geography, but we do have control over how we respond to a crisis. And the response by Kansas lawmakers has been deeply disturbing.

Kansas has pushed thousands of Kansans out of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) rolls by raising the requirements. In 2005, an average of 17,118 families with 30,321 children received TANF benefits each month. That’s been reduced to an average of 5,506 families and 9,630 children this year.

That must mean thousands of Kansans are enjoying a new level of prosperity who were previously snatching up those TANF dollars, right?

Except that in 2014, the last year for which figures are available, there were 118,209 Kansas children living in poverty.

In other words, no longer qualifying for TANF support is not an indication of one’s ability to stay out of poverty.

If you’re a kid in Kansas - especially one who’s at-risk - it’s not likely to get any better.

Money that Kansas receives each year as a result of the Master Settlement with tobacco companies is supposed to be directed toward children’s programs in the state. We even created a Children’s Cabinet that oversees this money and provides grant funding for a variety of early childhood programs.

Unfortunately, it’s also been an irresistible cash cow for lawmakers.

Shannon Catsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, says that since the Children’s Initiative Fund was established in 1999, lawmakers have “swept” away about $210 million in funding. Gov. Brownback is responsible for taking more than $50 million from the fund to spend elsewhere.

 

And now the governor is proposing selling off future payments over the course of 20-30 years in order to fill an immediate budget gap.

 

One proposal on the table is to cap CIF spending at $42 million annually - which is already a cut of about $15 million from when Brownback took office. In addition, Brownback would sell off an estimated $200-$300 million in future payments for a one-time payment of $158 million.

Who in their right mind would consider making a deal like this?

It remains to be seen whether the legislature will allow this to happen and whether it will allow Brownback to negotiate an agreement without their oversight.

Whether or not it actually occurs is only part of the issue. What’s more disturbing is what it says about the people who would make such a proposal.

What Brownback and Sullivan are offering is to rob money from programs that benefit youngsters during the most critical years of their intellectual and social development. Their proposal would cap CIF spending at $42 million over the next 20 or 30 years, which ignores the reality that costs will increase during that time.

In short, early-childhood initiatives will serve fewer and fewer children. Programs and staff will be cut.

That we have a governor and administration who see this as a desirable alternative says a lot about the moral direction of our state.

That we have a compliant legislature which has been supportive of policies detrimental to our public schools, our poorest families and our at-risk children should disturb anyone who cares about our future.

What’s the matter with Kansas?

That’s a moral question we should be asking ourselves every day.

Rod Haxton can be reached at editor@screcord.com

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