Last week Gov. Mark Parkinson bit the bullet. Kansas, he said, should stop cutting its budget and should deal with the looming $400 million deficit by raising taxes on tobacco by $69 million and raising another $308 million with an additional penny on the sales tax.
The Republican-dominated tax committees didn’t even show him the courtesy of introducing his proposals as legislation. To the surprise of absolutely no one, no Repubican came back quickly with a crisis-solving alternative.
To use now-speak, this is unacceptable.
The state budget rests on a three-legged stool: the property tax pays for about 39 percent of state and local government; the sales tax supports another 29 percent and taxes on business and personal income pick up the remaining 32 percent.
As of fiscal 2008, the sales tax was producing the smallest amount of the three. It could be increased by $400 million and still come in third.
But Parkinson’s penny drew such heavy fire it was pronounced dead before the lawmakers unpacked their briefcases to begin the session. Some Democrats de-nounced it because it is regressive, that it would hurt low-income families most at a time when many are struggling with unemployment, re-duced work weeks and other recession setbacks. Republicans say higher sales taxes would hurt smaller retailers, particularly those on Kansas borders who compete with stores in Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado, all states with lower sales taxes.
It would be better, some in both parties say, to repeal the sales tax ex-emptions granted over the years. A bill to do that will be introduced.
The biggest item in that list is the exemption on residential utilities. Taking electricity, gas and water off the exempt list would bring in another $146.19 million in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.
That would leave about $250 million still to be raised to hold spending at this year’s level.
The total revenue brought in by the sales tax exemptions being studied as possible sources of new revenue is $196.14 million — including the $146 million potential from utilities.
Removing the ex-emptions would only do half the job.
Still, half is half. Do that and also raise the sales tax enough — it would take less than half a cent — to make up the rest of the $400 million. Or raise the upper bracket of the income tax a tad, jack up the statewide property tax levy a mill or two, or add a smidgen to the severance tax — whatever combination of revenue-raisers it takes.
WHAT IS NEEDED from the Legislature is the same approach Gov. Parkinson took. Kansas lawmakers should first decide that the budget can’t be cut any further without doing unacceptable damage. Then raise the money it takes to prevent that damage from being done.
Far too many Kansas lawmakers take an opposite approach. They first decide which taxes they want to lower, which exemptions it would be politic to add, which tax credits to sweeten — and then see how the budget can be squeezed or mutilated — to make those bigger tax benefits possible.
That puts the cart before the horse. Responsibility number one for those who govern Kansas is to keep the long term good of the people — even youngsters under 18 — in mind.
Providing a high quality education, from kin-dergarten through graduate school, should have top priority, just as it takes first place in the budget. To be first quality, the schools must perform with uniform excellence every year. Education lost one year can’t be made up the next — a child cannot relive a year of his or her life. Shortchanging the schools of Kansas for a year, or two, or three, shortchanges children for the rest of their lives.
Equally good arguments can be made for maintaining our excellent highways, for keeping our prisons well-manned, for assuring Kansans that the state’s justice system is first quality, that the disabled, the ill, the poor and the old are cared for with expertise and compassion.
And yes, dear readers and fellow Kansans, we can afford a state government we can be proud of. What we cannot afford is a Kansas which makes us hang our heads and moan that we’re just a poor boy who can’t do no better.
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