To Make Up For His Massive Tax Cuts, Kansas Governor Proposes Cutting Schools

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Rather than retreat from the massive tax cuts that are crippling his state’s finances, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) wants to cut classroom funding for Kansas schools by $127 million and push pension fund payments off into the future.

The defining characteristic of the governor’s various proposals for fixing the nearly billion-dollar deficit is that they will create larger problems down the road. The proposed budget would replace the state’s current financing formula for schools with block grants that districts could use as they see fit. But that flexibility masks a significant cut in classroom resources for a state that has already been accused by judges of falling hundreds of millions of dollars short of the bare-minimum level of education funding required by the Kansas Constitution.

Even if courts don’t step in and order higher funding levels, economic research shows that under-investing in education raises longer-term costs in other areas. Future public assistance spending will be higher, (because education funding cuts produce higher poverty among the students affected, and the state will likely spend more medicating and jailing a sicker and more delinquent future adult population.

The state’s Department of Education estimates that Brownback’s block grants would cut funding that goes directly to educating children by $127.4 million. The definition of “funding to the classroom” gets very slippery though, as the Kansas Association of School Boards’ Mark Tallman told ThinkProgress prior to Brownback’s announcement. Republicans argue that the budget only actually cuts $22 million from school spending, because they count teacher pension spending increases in the proposal against the other cuts. But the Kansas City Star notes that almost half of the pension spending increase for teachers is a “make-up payment for this year’s cut” to that same funding.

More broadly, Kansas state workers’ pension funds are also being used to patch Brownback’s fiscal gap. He is proposing to cut state payments to pension funds by $446 million over three fiscal years including the current one while also refinancing some of the funds’ debts. But the executive director of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System says Brownback’s proposed tweaks will ultimately cost the state more than 8 times what they save in the short term.

The near-term cuts would raise long-term costs by $3.7 billion — nearly a quarter of the current size of the pension system. Reneging on pension obligations in the short term and creating larger retirement system problems in the long term helps create political pressure to cut workers’ retirement benefits down the road, according to critics of similar maneuvers in states like New Jersey.

Another big-ticket Brownback cut strips roughly $300 million in transportation department funding over the next couple years — a move that shares the penny-wise, pound-foolish DNA of Brownback’s schools and pensions cuts. The road repair cuts will save a little bit of money now, but “all you’re going to do is create bigger problems for yourself later,” the head of a trade group for heavy construction firms in Kansas City told the Star.

All that short-term thinking in Brownback’s budget doesn’t even produce long-term solvency for the state, according to the Star’s editorial board. The paper criticized Brownback’s promise to “continue our march to zero income taxes,” noting that his cuts have not produced job growth in exchange for starving the state of resources. Brownback’s “proposals leave the state barely able to meet its statutory obligations, much less invest in its citizens and the future,” the editors wrote.