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SPOTLIGHT
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What's really the matter with Kansas

Published on -5/26/2011, 8:57 AM

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A May 22 story in the Wichita Eagle about the lack of focus on job creation in the just-concluded legislative session provides great insight into the economic stagnation the state has suffered over the last decade.

According to the Kansas Department of Labor, between April 2008 and April 2011, we lost 73,200 private sector jobs (6.5 percent), 500 state government jobs (0.9 percent) and 500 local government jobs (0.3 percent).

Last year, despite warnings from two academic studies that a sales tax increase would cost thousands of jobs, legislators did it anyway -- and sure enough, between July 1 and April 30, we lost 5,000 private sector jobs (seasonally adjusted according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for comparability).

State government employment didn't change over that time frame.

So what was the focus of that lengthy article? The loss of government jobs. Private sector jobs were barely mentioned.

The Eagle article spoke of a large number of state job cuts without mentioning that the majority were vacant positions. But there was no mention of last year's legislative action that destroyed private sector jobs by raising the sales tax so government could spend more money.

That pretty much sums up the job problem in Kansas for the last decade: more concern about protecting government and not much more than lip service for the private sector.

The article painted a dire picture for education but failed to mention that total state spending on K-12 will increase by more than $100 million next year. Mandatory spending increases on school employee retirement benefits, special education and school bond payments prompted a reduction in the starting point of the funding formula (base state aid) but legislators also passed a law allowing districts to make up the difference in base state aid. Districts are allowed to transfer carryover cash balances from a variety of funds for operational purposes -- and all but one district started this year with enough money in those funds to do so. Most, in fact, had more than $1,000 per-pupil in those funds. Districts have the ability to avoid the layoffs mentioned in this article, so why did the author and those interviewed fail to mention it?

There was also no perspective placed on the education jobs that local school boards chose to eliminate. Current employment levels are still considerably higher than just a few years ago. Statewide there are 4.6 percent more teachers than in 2005 and all other school employment is 8.6 percent higher; enrollment is up just 3.1 percent. It's a shame that those people lost their jobs but it would be nice to see just as much concern for the private sector unemployed.

The Rural Opportunity Zones created by the Legislature are a good step forward, but the change that would create more jobs than any other effort -- eventually eliminating the income tax -- was killed in the Senate. They wouldn't even allow it to be discussed. Opponents of eliminating the income tax are very concerned about sustaining government.

Kansas will continue to suffer the economic stagnation we've seen over the last decade until we stop valuing government jobs over private sector jobs. That's what is really the matter with Kansas.

Dave Trabert is president of the Kansas Policy Institute. He is a frequent speaker to business, legislative and civic groups and also does research and writes on fiscal policy and education issues.

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