A Matter of Priorities

It’s always nice to get some change back. It’s better still when that big-ticket item you decided to purchase ended up costing less than you were expecting.

Such was the case Friday when the University of Kansas returned $4.5M to the State of Kansas. Apparently, the new pharmacy building on KU’s West Campus came in considerably under budget. So the university properly returned the money to the state.

For a state with a budget crisis that has necessitated funding cuts in social services, arts funding, and education (among other things), this had to be a boon. Perhaps some of those programs could be propped up a bit.

That’s not what Governor Sam Brownback and the State Finance Council elected to do, though. Instead, they allocated the funds to the ongoing Capitol improvement project, which has been refurbishing the state’s capitol building in Topeka for several years now.

To be sure, this is a worthwhile project. The Capitol needs refurbishing, and the project will result in a very nice facility when it’s completed.

However, in the past eight months, the Brownback administration has executed $1M in funding cuts to Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), vetoed $700,000 in funding for the Kansas Arts Commission and fired its entire staff, and reduced education spending to its lowest level in 20 years. Ostensibly, these cuts were necessary, because the government was facing a budget deficit and had to get its financial house in order.

So when $4.5M unexpectedly dropped out of the sky, wouldn’t it make sense to replace some of the funding these important agencies were forced to do without?

Not apparently to the Brownback administration. According to the article in the The Lawrence Journal-World, the State Finance Council (of which Brownback is the chair), “immediately applied it to the Capitol restoration project.”

Immediately. Meaning there was no delay and no hesitation. It never occurred to anyone to ease the budget crunch for SRS (which announced plans to close nine regional offices), fund the arts commission (whose defunding cost the state approximately $1.5M in matching funds from the NEA and the Mid-America Arts Council), or put some more money into public education.

How we allocate our tax dollars speaks to our priorities. There is currently a national debate over how to cut government spending — which means we are having a national debate over what our priorities are as a society.

Actions reveal our thoughts and character. Governor Brownback and his administration have made a clear statement what their priorities are, and they aren’t social services, the arts, or education. When he vetoed funding for the arts back in May, Brownback said in part, “the state must prioritize how to spend its limited resources and focus its attention on providing core services.”

One wonders, given the allocation of funds to a restoration project rather than social services, what these “core services” the governor refers to are.

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One thought on “A Matter of Priorities

  1. Since I wrote this blog yesterday, more information has come to my attention. The money KU returned to the State was part of a $50M construction bond. Bond money cannot be reallocated to the general fund.

    I investigated to see if it would have been possible not to spend the savings (thereby making the money available another way), particularly since the bond was being paid for by state gaming revenues. However, that was not the case either. The money has to be spent, and it has to be spent on construction. Thus, the State Finance Council’s decision to repurpose the $4.5M it got back from KU for the Capitol restoration project was certainly reasonable. As I noted in the original blog, refurbishing the Capitol building is a worthwhile endeavor.

    That doesn’t change the fact that the Brownback administration has made it very clear social services to vulnerable Kansans, the arts, and education are not among its top priorities. (One might even argue they aren’t among its middling priorities.) However, using the reallocation of the bond funds returned from KU as evidence of this fact isn’t fair criticism. Neither the governor nor the State Finance Council could have used that money to support programs from the state’s general fund, even if they wanted to.

    Like every blog that tackles issues of current events and politics, “Pleading the Phyth” is colored by my own biases. However, I do strive to level criticism based on facts, and I regret I got this one wrong.

    –JP

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