Proposals dealing with changing the judiciary or the tax system are important. But to members of the area delegation, the 2013 session of the Kansas Legislature actually amounts to a “great debate” over the broader size and role of government.
State Rep. Tom Phillips made that specific comparison Saturday during the Chamber of Commerce’s first legislative forum of the session. It’s not, Phillips said, that the individual issues aren’t important. But the broader picture is the most profound.
“The question is what is the role of government and what do we want to fund,” he told attendees at the session. “Ultimately, that’s what this is all about.”
Phillips said those in House and Senate leadership positions are crafting proposals designed to fit their image of an ideal government. That holds true whether the question involves reducing or eliminating the state income tax, or funding levels for K-12 education. “Leadership says we need a smaller government,” he asserted.
“That is the big question we have been grappling with for four years,” State Rep. Sydney Carlin added, saying that individuals need to make the decision for themselves. Her own view was that smaller government worked against the interests of many in Manhattan. “We’ve tried to starve the judicial branch … to starve education,” she said.
Sen. Tom Hawk also drew on the “starve the beast” analogy to explain his opposition to the movement. “They’re starting to get a huge pushback on (elimination of) the mortgage interest deduction,” Hawk said of rising opposition to a proposal now under consideration. At the same time, the senator speculated that smaller-government forces may “have the votes” to reduce and eventually get rid of the state income tax.
That, Hawk said, would contribute to what he sees as a budding tax “disaster” being promoted by Gov. Sam Brownback. “The governor believes the state is more competitive without an income tax,” he said, noting his personal disagreement. He also opposed sales tax increases, including extension of a six-tenths of a cent tax that was to expire this year. “The sales tax is very regressive,” Hawk said.
Phillips and Carlin both predicted that reductions at the state level would only be passed down to the local level, shifting the funding burden to property tax payers. Carlin said elimination of the income tax would also hurt charities, who benefit from the deductibility of gifts as part of the state’s tax code.
None of the three lawmakers who attended Saturday’s session supported a proposed constitutional amendment that would replace the current system of selecting judges by a nominating committee with what is commonly known as the “federal model.” They all hoped that a proposed amendment calling for an August 2014 vote which cleared the Senate last week might be sidetracked in the House. Rather, they seemed to prefer a proposal advanced by the Kansas Bar Association that would expand the present nine-person nominating panel to 15. That proposal would allow the bar to nominate four persons, with the governor nominating five and the remaining six selected by legislative leaders.
Hawk said his “general sense” is the fewer constitutional amendments the better he likes it. He added that he hopes the House “will show some restraint” when it considers the amendment, but if not, he hopes that at minimum the public vote is scheduled for a general election, with its higher turnout, than a primary election, as is presently envisioned. He said he believes the arguments against the federal model are stronger than those for it, largely because politics is less of a factor.
Phillips supported efforts to modify the current system, but said he was “not prepared” to throw it out. He said he believes there remains a place for attorneys on the selection panel, but not a majority as is presently the case.
Carlin said her view was based on the belief that “judges are not politicians in robes.”