Spend­ing more isn’t so­lu­tion to Kansas’ eco­nomic is­sues

The Wichita Eagle - - Opinion - DAVE TRABERT Dave Trabert is pres­i­dent of the Kansas Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

There are new elected of­fi­cials com­ing to Topeka but they’ll be deal­ing with a lot of re­cur­ring is­sues, in­clud­ing very large bud­get short­falls, con­tin­ued eco­nomic stag­na­tion and per­sis­tently low stu­dent achieve­ment de­spite record-set­ting fund­ing lev­els.

Tax col­lec­tions are at record highs, but a Kansas Leg­isla­tive Re­search Depart­ment re­port shows spend­ing al­ready ex­ceeds rev­enue by $600 mil­lion over the next two years, and the state will be out of money in 2022. The KLRD es­ti­mate doesn’t in­clude any ad­di­tional spend­ing be­ing pro­posed by Gov. Laura Kelly on Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, univer­sity or K-12 spend­ing or any other bud­get in­creases; those would only make the deficit worse.

School fund­ing also set a record last year at $13,620 per pupil. That’s a 95 per­cent in­crease over the last twenty years and dou­ble the rate of in­fla­tion, yet achieve­ment is es­sen­tially un­changed and far too low. Read­ing pro­fi­ciency on the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress barely changed, go­ing from 35 per­cent to 37 per­cent. The av­er­age ACT score is slightly lower and only 29 per­cent of Kansas stu­dents tak­ing the test are con­sid­ered col­lege-ready in English, Read­ing, Math and Sci­ence.

The state econ­omy is also not per­form­ing at ac­cept­able lev­els. Kansas is in its fourth con­sec­u­tive decade of eco­nomic stag­na­tion and the gap be­tween Kansas and the na­tion on job cre­ation and eco­nomic growth has got­ten worse as state spend­ing and tax­a­tion ex­ploded over the past twenty years.

More spend­ing isn’t the so­lu­tion. Stu­dent achieve­ment re­sults in Kansas and across the na­tion prove that more spend­ing hasn’t led to bet­ter out­comes, and spend­ing more will ex­ac­er­bate the bud­get short­fall. If leg­is­la­tors don’t soon start re­duc­ing waste­ful spend­ing, the bal­loon­ing deficit will lead to an­other mas­sive tax in­crease that will fur­ther weaken the econ­omy.

For­tu­nately, there are al­ter­nate ways to re­solve these and other chal­lenges.

Health care, for ex­am­ple, needs to be more af­ford­able but ex­pand­ing Med­i­caid will put enor­mous pres­sure on the bud­get, and not nec­es­sar­ily im­prove out­comes. In­stead, change the rules on as­so­ci­a­tion health plans so that small em­ploy­ers are el­i­gi­ble to of­fer lower group rates to em­ploy­ees, and al­low less-costly short-term health plans to make it more af­ford­able to have cov­er­age when be­tween jobs.

Other is­sues can be ad­dressed by fo­cus­ing on re­sults and mak­ing bet­ter use of ex­ist­ing re­sources.

Al­low­ing stu­dents in schools where the av­er­age state as­sess­ment score is below gradelevel to take their fund­ing to a school of their choice would pro­vide im­me­di­ate re­lief to those kids and in­cen­tivize lo­cal school boards to pri­or­i­tize spend­ing to pro­duce bet­ter re­sults. Dis­tricts could also im­prove op­er­at­ing ef­fi­ciency by hav­ing non-in­struc­tional func­tions pro­vided through a few re­gional ser­vice cen­ters, and use the sav­ings to in­vest in bet­ter in­struc­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties or in­crease pay for ef­fec­tive teach­ers.

To the ex­tent more re­sources are needed for state ser­vices, do so by elim­i­nat­ing spend­ing that’s not es­sen­tial to im­prov­ing out­comes. Kansas spent 36 per­cent more per-res­i­dent in 2016 than the states with­out an in­come tax, so it’s clear there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­duce costs. Kansas spent over $1 bil­lion last year on fees for ser­vices, and the ma­jor­ity is clas­si­fied as ‘other’ or ‘mis­cel­la­neous.’ $64 mil­lion was spent on ‘other’ con­trac­tual ser­vices; $22 mil­lion on dues and sub­scrip­tions; $45 mil­lion on travel; $97 mil­lion on rent; $57 mil­lion on com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Ex­pen­di­tures like these are rarely ex­am­ined for ef­fec­tive­ness and ef­fi­ciency, but they should be.

Hy­per-par­ti­san­ship and other bar­ri­ers to civil, ro­bust de­bate must be set aside so we can fo­cus on vi­able so­lu­tions.

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