Budget crisis slams social services, universities
Topeka — Bad budget news on Monday gushed like water from a fire hose as lawmakers reviewed the state’s worsening financial situation.
The state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services announced that it was immediately freezing access to a program that serves Kansans with disabilities. The move could affect hundreds of people.
Kansas Board of Regents president and chief executive officer Reginald Robinson said he has told universities to prepare for budget cuts in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent.
And mental health advocates said they were informed the state was cutting grants that help patients by 7.3 percent.
Also, for the first time, the possibility of a tax increase or delaying the implementation of already approved tax cuts was broached.
“When legislators start looking at the reality of what we’re looking at in cuts, and how it is going to effect their people back home, and some of their programs, I think they’re going to be willing to look at all the options, and I think revenue enhancement packages might be part of that equation,” said state Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, who is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Bad news for budgets
The worsening national economy is hitting the state budget hard. Lawmakers are looking at a $147 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year and a $1 billion shortfall in the next one.
Legislators return for the 2009 session on Jan. 12 but gathered Monday in the Capitol to elect leaders and go over the state budget woes.
State Rep. Lee Tafanelli, R-Ozawkie, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said across-the-board cuts and possibly delaying the phase-in of tax cuts would be part of the solution to the fiscal mess.
“Based on the magnitude of $1 billion, you’re going to have to have a mix of things that makes this thing work itself out. The key to getting through this is going to be everybody coming to the table because everybody’s going to have skin in the game,” Tafanelli said.
On Monday, social service advocates were outraged over announced cuts to programs aimed at helping Kansans with physical and mental disabilities.
SRS said it would freeze access to a program that provides home- and community-based services for low-income Kansans with disabilities. It is designed to keep people with physical disabilities out of nursing homes. The freeze will be in effect through July 1, 2009.
SRS said the action will allow it to continue providing services to the approximately 7,000 Kansans currently receiving assistance through the program. SRS said it will now start a waiting list for the program. Based on recent growth in the program, the waiting list could have several hundred people on it within months.
‘A great hardship’
The move won’t affect programs aimed at frail, elderly Kansans, people with traumatic brain injuries and children who require technological assistance to manage intensive medical needs.
Even so, advocates were upset.
“It’s going to be a great hardship on the citizens of Kansas who are low-income and need long-term care,” said Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas.
Jones said recent tax cuts approved by the Legislature and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius for businesses should be repealed.
Tom Laing, executive director of InterHab, which represents agencies that serve people with developmental disabilities, said cuts to services designed for vulnerable Kansans are the result of irresponsible tax cuts over the past few years.
“There is a moral compass that has gone completely out of whack,” Laing said.
Mike Hammond, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said his centers are looking at a $1.8 million cut in grants from SRS.
“It will put a strain on a system that is already strained,” he said.
But Americans for Prosperity-Kansas sought to squelch any talk of increasing taxes.
“At a time of economic hardships across the nation, is this really the time for legislators to be raising the tax burden for everyday Kansans?,” said AFP Kansas director Alan Cobb.
‘No good places to cut’
Meanwhile, a line of state officials appeared before a joint session of the House and Senate budget committees to review proposed cuts.
Regents president Robinson said Sebelius’ budget office has proposed a $114 million cut to higher education. But Robinson said because of the dire economic conditions, he has told schools to prepare for larger cuts.
“It’s difficult not to conclude that things could be significantly worse,” he said.
Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis told lawmakers that school districts across the state were looking at increasing pupil-to-teacher ratios and reducing staff. He said cuts to education “will have an effect on student achievement.”
And Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby outlined a long list of cuts his agency is prepared to make, such as reducing funding to safety-net health clinics and teen pregnancy prevention projects, and delaying cleanup of dangerous meth lab sites.
Challenged by legislators on some of his proposals, Bremby said, “There are no good places to cut.”