The Kansas budget keeps looking worse

For a state dominated by a party that extols fiscal conservatism, the Kansas checkbook looks more like bank-account statements belonging to an insane gambling addict.

For one thing, compulsive gamblers tend to mislead themselves and others about the true nature of their financial picture (“I can always win it back”).

Gov. Sam Brownback reported last month that Kansas would have $435 million in the state’s savings account. Then bean counters revealed in a news dump late last week that Kansas finished out its last fiscal year with $380 million, a $55 million difference from Brownback’s projections.

At the rate that Kansas is going, under Brownback’s income-tax cuts, the state will run $238 million short by the end of fiscal year 2016. Kansas, unlike the federal government that Brownback loathes, cannot print its own money and isn’t allowed to run a deficit. That means lawmakers will have to somehow slice $238 million to balance the ledger by the end of June 2016.

That assumes state finances continue along a normal economic path. It’s a big assumption because the Kansas Supreme Court may still order more funding for K-12 education. The Kansas Supreme Court this year ordered the state to increase funding by $130 million to address the inequality of the education funding formula from one school district to the next. It has not yet weighed in on whether the state funds schools adequately. If the court orders another increase in education funding, the expense could run into the nine figures. Such a decision would blow the state’s budget out of the water.

Brownback at one point heralded that Kansas had $700 million in cash on hand on the account of his policies, which marked a dramatic improvement from the recessionary budgets that left only enough money sitting around for the state to buy a used sports utility vehicle. But the new budget numbers show that the state is burning through that wad like a blackjack player who ignores the dealer’s hand and always hits on 16.

Reporters in Kansas have a difficult time getting a realistic assessment from Brownback of the state’s budget. When state tax revenues came up more than $300 million short of expectations in April, May and June, the governor blamed the bad news on possible increases in federal capital-gains tax rates in 2012. Given the magnitude of the shortfall, Brownback’s explanation made no sense. But it did let him try to project the state’s budget woes upon President Barack Obama.

In fact, Brownback seems to view Obama as his best asset for seeking re-election this fall. After Jennifer Winn, a no-name Republican from Wichita, garnered nearly 40 percent of the primary vote, Brownback somehow connected her surprising performance to Obama.

Brownback is also getting help from the Republican Governors Association, which seems concerned about the incumbent losing his seat by airing television ads that portray Democratic challenger Paul Davis as an Obama clone.

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