Area legislators gearing up for the last 17 days of the 90-day session spent Saturday morning discussing upcoming plans with the community.
State Reps. Sydney Carlin D-Manhattan, Richard Carlson R-St. Marys, Tom Phillips R-Manhattan and State Sen. Roger Reitz R-Manhattan answered questions from about two dozen constituents on a variety of topics during the Egg and Issues forum at the Union Pacific Train Depot.
Everyone except Reitz stated their intention to run for re-election this fall, or run for the first time in Phillips’ case. Reitz said he will make a decision after the legislative session.
A number of big issues are still up for consideration, and the legislators gave their positions and thoughts on where things are headed.
Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax proposal to gradually eliminate individual income taxes has met some resistance after the Senate made significant changes to the bill. It is currently in conference committee.
The Senate’s measure removed the governor’s proposals to continue the temporary one-cent sales tax increase that started in 2010 and Brownback’s plan to eliminate many tax credits and deductions such as mortgage interest and charitable contributions.
Carlson, chair of the House Taxation Committee, said most people leaving the state moved to states with lower state individual income taxes such as Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado. He said Oklahoma’s income-tax cuts have led to increased sales-tax revenue and business activity, and is closing in on record state revenues.
“To grow the economy, to grow the jobs, to have the income that we need in the future for the state of Kansas to provide the services we need, we need a flat, lower income tax,” Carlson said.
Reitz said he supported portions of the bill, which surprised him since he doesn’t agree with Brownback about many things. However, he and other senators couldn’t support it currently because of the “draconian changes” made.
Phillips said he thinks the elimination of individual income tax focuses on the wrong thing. He said lowering property taxes would be a better. He said the problem with comparing Kansas to states without income taxes is the difference in revenue potential.
As examples, Phillips said Texas has revenue from oil and gas, Florida has its tourism revenue, and Nevada receives significant revenue from gambling.
“We just don’t have that luxury here,” he said.
Carlin said the plan in its current incarnation would take about $800 million out of the state’s operating expenses, which means more than 423,000 jobs would have to be created in 18 months to generate the revenue. She called it a tall order.
“We need to do a lot of work before we’re ready for an income tax stop,” she said.
The Senate passed an education plan that would boost the base state aid per pupil (BSAPP) by $74 each of the next two years. The BSAPP would increase from the current $3,780 BSAPP to $3,854 for the 2012-13 school year and $3,928 for the 2013-14 school year.
Reitz called the plan a step in the right direction. “We’re still talking about inadequate amount of money per pupil,” he said.
Carlin said the Senate plan is the best she’s heard. The House plan doesn’t call for increasing the BSAPP for the current school year. Carlson said the differences will need to be resolved in conference committee.
Phillips said the state is fortunate to have $500 million of excess funds, which could allow for an increase in education funding. But he also expressed caution to not go too deep into the “rainy day fund.”
“I want to make sure that we try to save as much as possible in that end-of-year balance reserve,” he said.
The legislators didn’t provide comment on the status of the governor’s proposed education formula because they were unsure of its progress. It would take effect in fiscal year 2014 if it passes.
The proposal keeps funding at least at the same level and includes the base state aid per pupil at the statutory amount of $4,492, and the removal of the formula weightings, restrictions on how to spend money and the cap on the local option budget.
School officials statewide have expressed concern that this proposal locks the districts in their current low funding unless local property taxes are raised.
The state is working to restructure the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System for new employees to account for an $8.3 billion shortfall.
The recommendation is a 401(k)-style framework for new employees to enter into for KPERS. No changes would be made for existing employees.
“The problem with some of these plans is it’s going to require a lot of difficult study and work,” Carlin said. “But I think we’re getting there.”
A minor means to reduce the KPERS debt occurred in November when 1,027 workers enrolled in the program retired to save the state as much as $34.5 million over a two-year period. The goal of voluntary retirement incentive program was to reduce the budget through salary and benefit savings generated by the retirees and reduced work force.
Carlson said tough economic times with the 9/11-related recession and the 2008 recession contributed to the unfunded liability. However, Phillips and Reitz stated Kansas just didn’t do a good job of handling KPERS.
“We did a good job of giving a lot of benefits without thinking about how much it was going to cost in the long-term,” Phillips said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
Reitz said legislators need to be honest with Kansans about what happened and what needs to happen now. He said the finger pointing to a bad economy needs to stop because it’s hard to believe with an $8 billion shortfall.
Mental health program has received significant cuts from the state in recent years, leading to concerns about the quality of care for those with mental illness. In its budget, the House adds $5 million more to the community health centers than the $10 million that Brownback requested.
Carlin said $38.2 million has been cut from mental health in the general fund since 2007 with a $59.1 million decrease in all funds during the same time period.
“This would mean that our state general fund dollars not being there has affected other dollars coming in,” she said.
The legislators agreed that an increase in funding is needed for these services.
“I support the appropriations committee that if we’re able to hold our budget somewhat steady this year that we do get additional money to the community health centers and also to the disabled people in our state,” Carlson said.
Phillips said mental health funding is important because taxpayers will pay for it regardless whether it involves treatment costs or the cost of jailing these individuals unable to be properly treated.
Reitz said there are some people that think mental illness can be solved by taking a “bootstrap” mentality.
“They need professional support and professional support costs money,” he said.