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Legislators talk finance, elections

By Bethany Knipp

Area legislators weighed on Saturday on a couple of warm issues: the Kansas Supreme Court school finance decision and a proposal to hold local elections in the fall.

State representatives Sydney Carlin, Tom Phillips, Ron Highland and Sen. Tom Hawk kicked around concerns submitted at “Eggs and Issues,” the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce’s traditional morning gathering at Sunset Zoo.

Phillips was the first to speak about the March 7 decision that ruled funding for Kansas schools was not equitable.

“We are up in the middle of thick negotiations trying to figure out a solution,” Phillips said.  “My personal opinion is that we should identify a way to pay the $129 million dollars, then come back next year and really tackle some of these policy issues.”

The Kansas House introduced HB 2774 on Monday, attempting to raise enough money by the court’s July 1 deadline for the 2014-2015 school year.

Phillips said the state is in a decent position with end-of-year balances.

“We could take money out of that for some of this $129 million,” he said. 

But Phillips said there are some legislators who don’t want to do that, and favor shifting money into the budget through cuts.

He said that some potential cuts could include a 50-percent decrease in virtual school program funding and a reduction in transportation funding – which would impact local school districts.

Lew Faust, the director of business services for USD 383, said at a board meeting last week that hacking away at the virtual program and transportation funding could mean about a cut of $217,000 in those two categories for the district.

“Probably, the political reality is we will take some money out of reserve and take some money out of budget cuts,” Phillips said.

Highland, who serves on the Education Committee and the Education Budget Committee, said that money for higher education is fine right now, a different story than state aid for K-12 students.

“There are some policy changes, yes, but not anything dramatic. Higher education was peeled off and it will be left alone,” he said. “In fact, we re-instated some funds that were taken last year, so they’re in pretty good shape.”

Highland said that it’s the Senate that is proposing to cut virtual school programs, which he would like to leave alone because the process seems to be working for students.

Hawk claimed that the Senate Democrats want to pay the $129 million out of the existing balance.

“We should pay what the court says we owe. We shouldn’t be sticking fingers in the eye of the court,” he said.

The group also discussed proposals to move municipal elections.

“I don’t know where I stand on this at this moment,” Highland said. “There are those that argue we need to have greater participation in the elections, and I understand that.

“There are those who say it is apolitical and we don’t need to have elections where the parties are getting involved more.”

Phillips, who is on the Elections Committee, said that the House lawmakers’ idea this year was to move local elections to odd years in the fall.

Phillips said he agreed there should be more voter participation, but he hasn’t seen evidence that moving an election to the fall would increase that.

“Unless you can prove something to me that it’s going to work, then I say why change it?” he said.

He suggested mail-in ballots as a better alternative to increase participation, while conceding it would be costly.

The next “Eggs and Issues” gathering is scheduled for May 3.

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