The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Emily Fetsch is the director of fiscal policy and research at Kansas Action for Children.
News comes at us from all directions these days, but we can’t ignore a crisis that’s playing out in plain sight right now: Budget shortfalls faced by the state of Kansas and its municipalities.
The plunge in tax revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm our state, leading to cuts far exceeding those that defined former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tenure. Education, infrastructure and public services are all under threat. And the children and families least able to cope with the consequences will bear the brunt.
Kansas Action for Children knows that children can thrive when they have their basic needs met. Through our tax dollars, Kansans support kids and families who otherwise would go without. That’s why budgets matter, from the tiniest town to the entire state.
Make no mistake, we’re grappling with a once-in-a-century health and economic crisis. Kansas revenue has plummeted, creating a crisis for schools, health care and other critical services. The state government experienced revenue declines of more than $800 million in fiscal year 2020, and revenue declines of a half-billion dollars are projected for fiscal year 2021.
Unlike the federal government, Kansas and other states can’t run deficits. That means we either make up that money — through federal aid or state taxes — or slash services.
But the problem isn’t just with state revenue. We also face an employment crisis. Since the pandemic started, the state has lost 13,100 public sector jobs. The National Education Association has estimated that Kansas could lose roughly 32,100 jobs by the end of FY 2022 as a result of the decline in the state general revenues that fund education.
Absent federal action, these job losses could get much worse. A recent analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that without it, Kansas will lose a combined total of 51,700 public and private jobs by the end of 2021.
Cities in Kansas are facing serious revenue shortfalls, as well. Topeka projects a budget shortfall of millions of dollars and plans to cut jobs. The National League of Cities estimates that cities across the country will experience $360 billion in revenue loss through fiscal year 2022, which will force them to significantly cut spending on crucial services or raise taxes on already recession-battered residents.
Federal funding is needed to help Kansas, along with the local governments within it, in ensuring that health care, education, transportation, first responders and other services continue uninterrupted. Studies on the Great Recession found that forcing states to deal with severe budget constraints through austerity dampen long-term gross domestic product, prolong spells of high unemployment and extend recessions.
As the recession stretches into the second half of 2020, it has become increasingly clear that states and localities are at the forefront of combating the pandemic and its economic fallout.
From keeping students enrolled in remote learning programs to equipping community health centers with the protective gear needed to safely treat COVID-19 patients, state and local involvement can be seen and felt everywhere.
It is likely that both the coronavirus pandemic and the recession it unleashed are far from over. To help ease the financial pressures that states and localities face, it is imperative that the federal government pass legislation to support them in this unparalleled time.
Back in May, the House passed the HEROES Act, which included critical help for Kansans, with needed funding for state and local governments, along with money for health care and education. The Senate has yet to pass a bill, as negotiations between the chambers and the White House stalled. President Trump’s recently announced executive actions will do little, if anything, to solve these pressing problems.
When the Great Recession hit, the government passed and implemented the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This stimulus package included local funding and allowed states to address their budget shortfalls. It kept the recession from turning into a catastrophe like the Great Depression of the 1930s. It prepared the nation for a decade of economic growth.
We need precisely the same kind of assistance now, for precisely the same reasons.
Congress must act to get states and localities the aid they so desperately need. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, along with Reps. Ron Estes, Roger Marshall, Steve Watkins and Sharice Davids, should unite with one voice to do the right thing for Kansans.
Our children will pay the price for a lifetime if we don’t get this right.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.