Frustration Abounds in Topeka
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We have finished the "regular" session and have the next three weeks off. Overall, very little has been accomplished, particularly on the issues that really matter such as the budget and revenue for the budget.
I'm very disappointed about the actual process we are seeing this year. Time and time again this Session we've seen people trying to be more secretive and more like Washington. Bills have been introduced anonymously so that no one knows where they came from. There have been hearings where no one speaks in favor of a bill but the committee still passes it. And, we're seeing major legislation – like the school block grants – rammed through without any real debate or input from our local schools and parents.Despite the frustrations, I'm encouraged that there are those who still want to do the right thing. That group is growing as more and more people realize what's going on in Topeka. We need more of that. Thank you to those who have written or called me with concerns about pending legislation. Your voice matters! Knowing that I represent the majority of you with my vote is important.
In this newsletter I have attempted to summarize some the critical issues from the session that have either been addressed or are still pending. With so very much to discuss, I have left out some key issues that have been discussed in previous newsletters.
School Funding (SB 7)
The block grant bill is one of the biggest disappointments this Session – not only because it cuts funding for schools, but because of the way it was fast-tracked through the Legislature. Let me be clear: our existing funding formula is not perfect. It should be re-evaluated to make sure our tax dollars are invested in a way that requires cost-effectiveness and accountability. But to completely eliminate a formula with nothing in place to replace it was incredibly reckless. I personally called the Governor's office this past fall asking to participate in writing a new formula, but never heard back. In my opinion, a new formula should not take two years to develop!
Here are some of my concerns with SB 7:
-- Monumental legislation that takes the way we've operated Kansas schools for a more than a generation and just throws it out the window
-- Written, voted on, and pushed through the Legislature in less than 12 days
-- Testimony from our superintendents, principals and teachers describing how this bill would harm our local schools was largely ignored and belittled
SMSD was in favor of this bill. However, there is NO guarantee the money will be there. The block grant bill was not passed in an appropriations bill, which means the Legislature has not actually promised to put the dollars referred to in this bill in the budget. Right now, it's just words on a piece of paper with no money to back it up.
The Governor signed this bill into law on Thursday. Since that time, some school districts have announced they will have to end the school year early (Concordia and Twin Valley), and some fear they will be required to repay the state even though the school year is almost over and those dollars have already been spent. There's also a legal issue to contend with. A motion has been filed by the schools asking the court to halt implementation of the block grant bill. The court is scheduled to hear evidence in the school finance case on May 7. This could lead to a costly showdown between two branches of government. Stay tuned!
The House has not been given an opportunity to vote on a budget yet, which means that issue will be left to deal with when the Legislature returns to Topeka in May. So far, the Senate has passed a Budget Bill that was put into the shell of a House Bill. Sending the Senate Substitute for a House Bill over to the House side means the House cannot amend the bill but only vote it UP or DOWN. Our House Appropriations Committee has worked hard on a budget, but unfortunately, it looks as if their work is just going to be ignored
I am deeply concerned about what we've seen so far in budget proposals from the Governor and the Senate:
-- Has the state spending more than it's bringing in – to the tune of $224 million in deficit spending this year alone
-- Sweeps money from every account they could find – including the highway fund
Kansas has never stood for deficit spending and we should not let it happen now.
To pay for our budget requirements we must have revenue. The tax laws passed by the Governor in 2012 have created $650 million shortfall in the state budget. In spite of the evidence, the Speaker of the House still maintains that we have a SPENDING problem, not a REVENUE problem. Our consensus revenue report for March showed an $11 million shortfall. The evidence continues to pour in!
As we look at options to fund our budget, I support a move back to some income tax in Kansas to maintain a balanced approach to revenue. The Governor stands firmly opposed to making any changes to income tax and instead has put forward the following options to consider:
-- Increasing the gas tax so we all have to pay more at the pump
-- Increasing taxes on cigarettes and alcohol by $130 million
-- Hiking up sales taxes so we'd pay more on groceries and everything else we buy
-- Putting a $106 million tax on health insurance policies
-- Changing the agricultural land valuation so Kansas farmers have to pay higher property taxes
-- Eliminating sales tax exemptions, including the exemption on farm machiner
-- Increasing our property taxes by eliminating the homestead exemption or increasing the state mill levy by another 10 mills
While keeping income taxes down is important, we must find the right balance because what we're doing now isn't working. In District 21 the taxpayers have stressed to me that high property taxes are their biggest concern. At this point in time, the only tax change in the above list that I fully support is a tobacco tax, and that stems from the tremendous influence a tax increase has on reducing tobacco use, thus reducing our medical costs.
KPERS (SB 228)
Last year before the election, the Governor and the rest of the legislature stood proud that we had increased funding to the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System (KPERS). As soon as the tax plan was failing, the Governor pulled that money out. SB 228 calls for the borrowing of $1 billion for bonds to cover some of the shortfall going to KPERS, allowing the state to use money in the State General Fund instead. Essentially, we maxed out one credit card and now have a new one at a lower interest rate to cover the debts of the original card.
The bill passed in the House by 63 votes, the minimum number required to pass a bill. I voted NO. I was taught that to be fiscally responsible you do NOT BORROW MONEY to cover your debts! The borrowing of money from our state retirement plan must end. I am amazed that a Republican legislature does not face needs to face this responsibility head-on. The legislature should own up to the fact that they haven't been paying into KPERS like they should have. Racking up more debt and passing the buck onto the next generation is Washington-style politics, and I do NOT support it!
Gun Rights (SB 45)
While I strongly support the Second Amendment, I do not support allowing guns to be carried without any training at our parks, on our playgrounds, and at local bars and restaurants. While maintaining the right to carry a gun, I strongly support minimal training for those who carry a concealed weapon in public: thus my NO vote on SB 45. The Governor has signed this bill into law.
Outlook for Veto Session
The Legislature has two issues it needs to tackle in May:
-- School funding based on how the court responds to the new block grant law
-- The budget shortfall combined with the taxes needed to pay for it
My hope continues to be that we'll see a thoughtful and transparent legislature work TOGETHER to solve these significant issues. As always, it is a pleasure and privilege to serve you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org as needed during our April break.
Rep. Barbara Bollier
State Representative, District 21
Kansas House of Representatives
785-296-7686 (Topeka Office)