Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 12 January 2010 19:26
But the 70th District’s representative from Marion, now in his second year in Topeka, said he is hopeful this year’s House of Representatives can be more efficient in dealing with the state’s budget woes than it was last year.
Brookens said he gives “high marks” to Gov. Mark Parkinson for the unilateral budget cuts he made in late November in response to what was then the state’s latest projection of a revenue shortfall.
A year ago, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius left it up to the legislators to make those tough cuts. The process absorbed the energy of lawmakers the full first two months of the session.
Brookens knows Parkinson’s cuts don’t mean legislators will a have free pass this session.
Revenue projections last week indicate the state budget still will be in the red by almost $359 million this year. Since spring 2008, lawmakers and the governor have already cut nearly $1 billion from a state budget that once stood at $6.2 billion.
Attempts to make additional cuts, as well as attempts to tax increase revenue through taxation, will meet with strong opposition.
“It requires tough decisions that nobody wants to make,” Brookens said of the options.
As legislators work toward passing a balanced budget, which is constitutionally mandated, Brookens said they need to consider the cost not only of spending money, but also the long-term cost of not spending money in critical areas.
Public education is getting priority attention in the media, but the state is reducing services to other critical populations as well. He identified two areas that directly affect Marion County—community mental health and nursing homes.
He said mental-health centers such as Prairie View have been hit with double cuts—via Medicaid and the state—over the past year, totalling a 10 percent reduction in revenue.
As a result, centers are cutting counselors who were providing one-on-one follow-up to ensure clients take their prescribed medications. Without that personal accountability, Brookens foresees a significant rise in admissions to state-run mental hospitals.
In the area of aging, Brookens said he is aware of one nursing home in Marion County that has seen its revenue drop by 18 percent because of the number public-assistance residents it cares for.
Solutions for schools
In regard to schools, Brookens said he sympathizes with the budget cuts K-12 education has had to endure, but funding solutions are not easy to come by when the state has no money and is in the middle of an economic recession.
He said colleagues from more populated counties—he mentioned Reno and Sedgwick—are pushing for another round of school consolidation in an effort to reduce state funding.
In general, Brookens said he does not support another round of consolidation because of the harm done to communities that are forced to close their schools.
But he added that at some point schools that “aren’t succeeding” may be required to generate additional revenue from within the school district rather than the state.
Brookens said a voucher system “is not appropriate” for Kansas. He said he is not opposed to private education, but taxpayers in Kansas have a responsibility to educate every child in the state, not just their own.
He said some colleagues believe K-12 education is still overfunded; a few are against public education, period. Some have suggested that extra-curricular activities, particularly athletics, be unhitched from state funding and left to the local community to support.
Brookens said he is among those who favor reviewing some of the tax exemptions the state has enacted in recent years in the name of economic development.
He said the state has issued more tax credits than is reasonable, but he also understands that bringing more businesses and jobs to Kansas would broaden the tax base.
On another issue with local impact, Brookens said he is disturbed by the last-minute tax-exemption deal the state made at the end of the 2009 session with TransCanada Keystone regarding the new oil pipeline it is constructing through central Kansas.
The arrangement is costing the state, including Marion County, millions in tax revenue.
Brookens said something can and should be done to change the arrangement because the company misrepresented the project’s economic impact on the state.
Also, it has not followed through on promises to install taps in the pipeline that would make oil available to Kansas interests.
Brookens said the big question is whether representatives from districts not directly affected by the project will care enough about the problem to do something about it.
Now beginning his second legislative session, Brookens said he intends to be more vocal after a year of listening and learning the ropes.
Even so, h said finding solutions to the state’s complex budget problems will not be easy.
“There will be no solutions so long as we refuse to think outside of the box and be creative,” he said.
Brookens will once again write his column, “Capitol Ideas,” during the legislative session to keep his constituents informed of the issues. The first installment appears on Page 5 of this issue.