It’s rare for state fiscal news to trend on social media, but that’s exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago when the Kansas state legislature issued its rebuke of Gov. Sam Brownback’s “real live experiment” with slashing tax revenues.
In this week’s e-blast, you’ll see an article by our Generation Latino Fellow, Erin Castillo, taking a deeper look at what happened in Kansas. Give it a read and consider the question that’s been nagging me since the news broke. Why have Kansans responded with more urgency to drastic cuts in their public services than Coloradans have?
I’m still digging around for some answers, but a couple things are clear. First, the state’s supreme court responded to inequitable school funding with an ultimatum to the Kansas state legislature. Second, unlike Colorado, Kansas’ republican-controlled legislature had the ability to act. They could actually raise taxes without a long, expensive battle at the ballot box. As our readers know, TABOR requires any tax increase go to the voters.
Kansas should prompt us to ask taxpayers perceive the severity of spending cuts. Has Colorado been the frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, growing numb to the pain, while Kansas was plunged into a rapid boil and jumped out quickly? In just three short years, Kansas found itself faced with a $700 million deficit that was projected to balloon to $900 million. Schools felt immediate pain. Infrastructure suffered.
Some might find it surprising that even with Kansas’ harsh budget experiment and even with our greater affluence, they still spend more of their wealth on public services than we do on an apples to apples basis. Our total state spending (federal, state general fund and cash funds) is 10.5 percent of total personal income, compared to Kansas’ 11.7 percent.
The Bell and other organizations have long documented the bizarre paradoxes of life in Colorado – a state with a top economy, but at the bottom of public funding rankings famously unable to plug major holes in our education and transportation systems.
The reality is that our own radical approach to public spending has left Coloradans hurting as much or worse than Kansans’. Nearly half of our school districts have cut back to 4-day school weeks. Our parents must pay more for full-day kindergarten. Our roads are clogged by congestion. Our college tuition increases every year. But clearly our social and political circumstances are leading to different reactions.
This leads to a last big question. Is our stellar economic performance obscuring our desperate need for more public resources? Has our ability to import talent numbed us to the fact that we have one of the highest higher education attainment gaps in the country? Has prosperity for some created localized pockets of voters unaware of the inequities and heavy burdens on Coloradans in other communities?
The news out of Kansas is inspiring. It represents clear confirmation that “shrinking government and drowning it in the bathtub” is a formula for failure. It’s also a lesson to be studied and applied to Colorado’s own brand of that dangerous ideology. The economic success we take such pride in is at risk if we don’t act soon.