At NEJC Conservatives meeting, budget director defends state of Kansas finances


Characterizing criticism of the state’s current spending on schools as part of a “major misinformation campaign” by the media and political opponents, Kansas Budget Director Shawn Sullivan on Tuesday told a gathering of the of Northeast Johnson County Conservatives that despite revenues consistently coming in below expectations, the state was seeing positive economic indicators on a number of fronts.

“We need to do a better job of fighting back,” Sullivan said of the frequent attacks on the state’s school funding plans in the wake of the Brownback administration’s 2012 tax cuts.

Using a series of charts and graphs distributed to the two dozen attendees as a reference point, Sullivan painted a picture of an administration intent of reducing the annual growth of state spending in hopes of keeping entitlement programs like the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System (KPERS) and Medicaid solvent.

He noted that the annual growth rate of the state general fund under Brownback was just 1.7 percent — a marked reduction from the growth rate of more than 9 percent the state had seen under previous governors dating back to Robert Docking in the 1960s.

“In general, Kansas has a long term spending problem,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan noted that along with KPERS and Medicaid, public education funding in the state continued to pose the greatest challenges to the state’s general budget. The state’s 286 school districts currently require an annual investment of more than $4 billion, accounting for nearly two-thirds of Kansas’s spending. Sullivan said he believed the enactment of the block grant school funding bill during the last legislative session had been an important milestone in the move toward a long-term funding solution the state could sustain into the future. He credited the support of Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson and Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg with helping see the measure make its way through.

“There was — again, in my opinion – no way we were going to make any substantial reform to the old school finance system unless we got rid of it,” he said.

Sullivan told the crowd the governor believed the step was necessary to help reduce the state’s obligations on new capital expenditures.

“We somewhat turned into this arms race of school districts across the state with athletic facilities and buildings and new technology,” he said. “And the state pays a portion, depending on the wealth of the district, on those bond issues.”

Sullivan brushed aside the criticisms that have been lobbied in recent months of the state “robbing and stealing from the bank of KDOT” to cover the massive budget holes that have opened up as state revenues have failed to meet projections time and again. He said he had visited 19 states over the course of the past year and that none of them had better roads than Kansas.

“We have a very good set of conditioned roads and bridges and highways. We’ve kept them in good repair over the years. We spent a lot of money on expansion projects,” he said. “By us transferring these amounts to help us with the budget shortfalls, we are not going to all of the sudden have our roads go into a sudden state of disrepair.”

Sullivan was tasked last Friday with announcing the latest downward revision of revenue forecasts as Kansas’s coffers continue to see millions less than expected come in.

“There are challenges with our budget…” Sullivan said, but added, “Government will be okay, despite what you may hear or see.”

Audio of Sullivan’s presentation is embedded below:

And here’s a look at the slides Sullivan presented to the group: