The Kansas Legislature starts its new session on Monday. Members of the area’s legislative delegation agree that the budget and taxes will be the main focus of this year’s debate, but viewpoints diverge on how that will be accomplished.
Vern Swanson, a Republican whose 64th district includes Clay County, Fort Riley, Ogden and southwest Riley County, has been a member of the legislature since 2007. He said he is still trying to get to know constituents he acquired as part of last year’s redistricting process.
“It just takes time,” Swanson said. “It was thrust on us so quickly.”
Last June’s court-ordered redistricting sharply redrew Swanson’s boundaries. Previously, he said the majority of his voting public was in Clay Center. Now he has more voters in Riley County and on Fort Riley. So he will not only be focusing on the budget, but also on what his district wants to achieve.
Swanson is not alone in getting to know everyone. There are 52 new faces in the legislature this year. That means things will move slowly until the new representatives have been taught how the process works.
Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican, is one of them. Highland won the 51st District seat, which includes parts of five counties including Zeandale Township in Riley County, last November. He has been in Topeka all week setting up his new office and getting to know his staff.
“I am but one person and must rely on others for both factual information and advice,” he said. “Within the legislature there are those with expertise in areas that will be under discussion and I will seek them out.”
Tom Phillips, a Republican representing the Manhattan-based 67th district, said he is more secure in his role after being in office for the last four months of the 2012 session. Phillips was appointed in February following the resignation of Susan Mosier, and he won election to a full term in November. While this is his first full term, he says the fact he has been able to get up to speed during the last legislative session has helped him get to know the issues facing the legislature and he feels confident he will be able to work with others on resolving the budget issues.
Sydney Carlin, a Democrat representing the Manhattan-based 66th district and a member since 2003, said not only do legislators need to get to know the new representatives, but also what is important to them. She said she looks forward to working with them on a personal basis.
“In the committee I will be working with a smaller group,” she said. “We will hash out the smaller issues there.”
Swanson said he doesn’t think the elimination of small business income tax, proposed by Republican leaders, will create as many jobs as Gov. Sam Brownback hoped it would. As a result, he foresees “huge shortfalls in outlying years.”
He said that while there have been several calls to eliminate state income tax, there have been no alternative income streams suggested to fill those gaps. He said there are those who will want to pass it back to property tax, but he does not agree with that form of taxation because it puts too much pressure on property owners.
Phillips said he has heard that the governor wants to continue a six-tenths of a cent state sales tax that expired at the end of 2012. Part of the tax, originally enacted during the Parkinson administration, has already been “earmarked” for continuation in order to fund Kansas Department of Transportation projects. He said Republican representatives were originally opposed to continuation of the sales tax, but now they are lobbying to retain it.
Phillips said the forecast team has projected that $295 million in revenue will be lost due to the elimination of small business income tax. If the six-tenths sales tax is retained, it will bring in $250 million.
“It is still going to be short,” he said. “Finding $40 million is not an insurmountable amount to find in a $14 billion budget.”
Carlin said the property tax issue is due to a business in southeast Kansas that was given a tax abatement for 10 years. That abatement dropped its property tax from $11 million to $900,000. She said that firm is now crying foul because the abatement has expired. She said that had the abatement not been given to begin with, the business would have been paying $11 million in tax for the past 10 years, and it has no grounds to complain now.
Phillips said the tax policy is most important because that determines what the state will fund. He said the state needs to fund education first in order to encourage the other businesses to come to Kansas. He said corporations are looking for educated people to work in their businesses, and that is the key to growing the state. He said that includes funding two-year colleges as well as four-year colleges, primary and secondary education.
Carlin and Swanson agree with the importance of education.
“The state has one responsibility,” Swanson said. “That is fund the education of our kids because they are the future of our state and our country.”
Swanson said education is about 52 percent of the state budget and he does not want to see any cuts made in that area, and would like to see more funding in that area if possible.
Carlin said the other big issue this year will be KanCare and Medicaid. She said that this is the first year President Obama’s health care plan goes into effect, and “we don’t even know what those issues are, yet.”
Highland agrees that health care will be a big issue and says legislators must learn “what it really means to Kansans and then what if anything we can do to ensure that our people have the same care they have become to expect.”
Swanson said in addition to health care, mental health is a problem facing not only Kansans, but the entire nation. He said the legislature must do something about that, but had no suggestions as to what or how. He said with all the new faces in the legislature, it will be hard to get anything sorted out this year.
Phillips said the most important thing to remember is that representatives are sent to the Capitol to come to agreement, and the “it’s my way or the highway” attitudes seen in the past will not help anyone. He said he believes compromise is the only way to ensure everyone benefits and looks forward to coming together. Carlin said she is also looking to find “moderate ground” where everyone can agree.