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Recession's over: Why aren't public services coming back?

Many U.S. schools and other services continue to struggle with less as state lawmakers move to make recession-era budget cuts to education permanent, even as the states reap higher revenues or cut taxes further.

February 27, 2014|By Alana Semuels
  • Teacher Angela Wathanacharoen helps fourth-grader Janae Dale with a writing and computer lesson at Frank Rushton Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan. The school joined others in suing the state over a lack of education funding.
Teacher Angela Wathanacharoen helps fourth-grader Janae Dale with a writing… (John Hanna / Associated…)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — At Noble Prentis Elementary School, a classroom is crammed with 31 students and all their backpacks and books. Last year, the fifth-grade class had just 17 students, but a teaching position was cut when the school ran short of money.

The school nurse, who comes in only twice a week, freezes kitchen sponges to use as ice packs because her budget is too small for her to buy any.

Schools have always had to fight for more funding, but Noble Prentis' problems were exacerbated during the recession when state budget cuts left schools, like many other public services, foundering. Now, the state's general fund revenues are up $150 million since 2008, but Kansas officials are in no hurry to restore spending cuts the economic downturn made necessary.

It's not just Kansas. Conservative legislators committed to the idea that smaller government works best are passing tax cuts that they say help stimulate the economy. They are moving to make recession-era budget cuts permanent.

Even some Democratic governors, stung by the painful cutbacks of the economic downturn, are hoping to rebuild reserves: Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed that California's surplus go to a rainy day fund, while his fellow Democrats are calling for the state to restore services.

In Ohio, the Legislature eliminated mandatory full-day kindergarten in 2011 and cut state money for local government funds, which help pay for police and fire services, by $1 billion — a decrease of 50%. Wisconsin slashed the amount of money available to local governments. Oklahoma's governor this year has proposed trimming state agency budgets by 5%, while also suggesting a tax cut.

"Some states are choosing to make reduced services the new normal," said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Funding per student in Kansas schools is 16.5% lower than it was during the recession, according to Leachman's organization. State support for libraries, health services and community corrections is also down, all by more than 10%. Kansas state and local governments employ 5,700 fewer people than they did in 2008.

Sara Belfry, a spokeswoman for Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, said in an e-mail that the governor came into office when the state had $876.05 in the bank and a projected deficit of $500 million. Brownback "made it a priority to streamline and make government more efficient while protecting core services like public safety and education," she said. 

Under Brownback, Kansas has put money back in taxpayers' pockets. His administration points out that, among other things, the state ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of its budget committed to education. (Kansas ranked 33rd in the nation in per-student spending in 2012, according to the National Education Assn.).

"A decade of higher taxes, more spending and bigger government failed to deliver prosperity," Brownback said in his state of the state address this year. But now, he said, "Simply put … the government is back in its proper place — serving the people."

But smaller state government has failed Kansans in some corners of the state.

Saline County in central Kansas lost more than $1 million in state funding and lacks enough money to maintain the roads, so it closed 20 bridges, forcing residents to drive farther to get to their destinations.

In wealthy Johnson County, the director of the health department says staff cuts mean the department can't respond as quickly to disease outbreaks.

And in Shawnee County, where the coroner's budget was cut by more than half in 2011, there is only one forensic pathologist left. If the coroner, Donald Pojman, goes to a meeting or is out sick or on vacation, bodies are held for days before an autopsy can be performed.

"I'm really behind in getting these autopsy reports out in a timely manner — and I used to be very efficient with these," Pojman said. "But we went from a daytime staff of 15 down to four, and now I have to do the autopsies and the paperwork and coordinate with law enforcement and the courts."

The governor's office says that Brownback has streamlined government and encouraged business creation: About 13% more businesses were created in 2013 than in 2011.

Businesses say the tax cuts have helped them thrive, and in a poll sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce, many small-business owners said they still thought taxes were too high.

"We hear from members that are involved in business expansions who have said without these tax cuts, they wouldn't have had the money to reinvest and grow," said Jason Watkins, who is with the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

But other Kansans are beginning to rebel. Devin Kelly, a parent of a second-grader and a fifth-grader in Johnson County, joined Game On for Kansas Schools, started by parents three years ago.

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