What a whirlwind! The last four weeks has produced a Kansas tornado of legislative activity across several important issues, including tax reform, school finance reform, the annual budget, and the always contentious issue of redistricting.
One can describe this activity as a tornado because it has included failed votes, motions to reconsider, followed by successful votes – but nearly every issue is still hanging in the breeze and could go either way, leading to a calendar that could keep us in session longer than anyone would like – especially you, the taxpayer and citizen.
In the midst of these larger issues, we have voted on a number of other bills as well, which you can keep track of via the series of legislative reports, which are being added to my website at this link. If you have questions about any of these pieces of legislation, feel free to ask.
For the purposes of this newsletter, I want to zero in on the “big issues” of the day that consume most of our time and energy, and in the case of education, more than half of the state’s budget:
The Senate, by a vote of 39-1, passed a $14.2 billion budget. I was pleased that this plan cuts overall spending by almost 4 percent, or $572 million, during the fiscal year that begins July 1. The plan would leave about $460 million in cash reserves at the end of June 2013.
I remain optimistic about the chances of a fiscally sound budget this session because the House has passed a version which can be considered fiscally tighter. What the debate over tax reform produces will also have an impact on the final budget. However, when these two versions are considered in conference, my feeling is a final version will be produced that conservatives can vote yes on, and our state budget, once in danger of bankrupting our state, will have taken Kansas ever closer to a state of consistent fiscal responsibility.
I was also pleased to support a provision in the budget that would ensure no taxpayer dollars could be used for abortions. While we should have compassion for any woman or man involved in an abortion because we don’t know what kind of pressure they were under or what information they were given, no Kansan should ever feel like they have to pay for abortion.
The debate on tax reform produced the biggest flurry of activity. Some members of the Kansas Senate voted with mixed messages. For instance, one senator who had sent out press releases in favor of reducing the sales tax by .06 cent, offered and voted for that amendment, but also voted for an amendment to restore all the tax deductions and tax credits, and then voted against the final bill saying it created too big of a hole in the budget!
When the Kansas Legislature passed a 1 cent sales tax increase a few years ago, it was an 18% increase overall from the previous rate. This tax hike made it more difficult for Kansans to recover from the steep economic downturn. I offered an amendment that would return the state sales tax to 5.3%. It did not pass, but as I noted earlier, the .06% reduction offered from another senator did pass. The majority in the Senate wanted to maintain the .04% increase for transportation projects.
I voted yes, but the “final” vote was 20-20, which would have killed the Governor’s plan – the plan that would reduce income taxes to small businesses and families while increasing economic growth. It was heavily amended, but it still included very important provisions. However, a day later, the Senate voted to “reconsider” the final vote, and instead passed the legislation. This action will create an opening for compromise with the House in the conference committee process.
While I voted yes on the reconsideration and am pleased tax reform is still on the tracks, there are still issues with the legislation, as it removed many of the provisions in the original bill that would make the plan fiscally sound going forward, including the removal of deductions necessary to reduce and eventually eliminate the state income tax (more about this in a future newsletter).
The bill is now in conference with the more favorable-to-taxpayers House version. I remain optimistic that the final vote we cast will be on a tax reform plan which will be a significant step forward on putting Kansas on the path to prosperity.
The progress on education has not been as successful, as a very weak school funding plan was adopted by the Kansas Senate by a vote of 31-9. I voted no, along with a majority of Johnson County senators. This plan does nothing to reform the current school finance formula, which has been in place for 20 years and is the source of most of the annual strife and lack of progress regarding education spending in Kansas.
The plan pushed by Senate leadership is the same plan that has kept the Shawnee Mission School District in the bottom 10 percent for educational funding of all the other school districts in the state, and it throws more money at a deeply flawed formula while doing precious little to restore the fundamental principle of local control which is so essential to our local school districts.
I support the plan offered by Governor Brownback, which would remove the cap on the local option budget and scrap the current destructive formula in favor of a new, much simpler version which has none of the numerous weightings that pit some school districts against others. The governor’s plan instead would lay out a level playing field which is fair to all, while allowing local communities to support their schools as they see fit.
This approach, which would end the two-decades-long history of lawsuits and political fights, would actually be a move to solve this critical problem facing our state. If we are ever to get our arms around school finance in Kansas, we must stop with proposals which simply tinker with an already failed system, and instead choose a new direction that will respect local control and fairly fund our schools, so we can get back to the core mission of educating children.
The process of redistricting has been a cumbersome process, with maps being produced at a very quick rate of speed that would make Rand McNally jealous. Unfortunately, on the Senate side, the process has been frustrating.
Our district, the 10th Senate district, has been radically redrawn – with contortions. I’ve been told it was not “purposeful” by Senate leadership, but the 10th Senate district is currently the entire city of Shawnee, Lake Quivira and northeast Lenexa. The proposed map significantly shifts the boundaries, mixes communities of interest, taking away a large portion of Shawnee from the 10th district and moves it way over into Merriam – and it is clear it was drawn to pick up an incumbent senator’s opponent, whose house is just within the border. Not purposeful? Drawing a map is always premeditated. The motivations behind this decision need to be questioned.
The Ad Astra map is a senate leadership political map where many senate districts have been radically redrawn to favor specific incumbent senators so they do not have to run against declared opponents. It is political maneuvering of self-interests by those in power and it is shameful.
We continue to fight hard to correct this – but so far have fallen 2 votes short. This process is far from finished but I will continue to work to ensure Shawnee largely remains within one Senate district and communities of interest remain intact.
The ongoing whirlwind of these debates should prove to all citizens that we are still quite a distance away from achieving critical goals – but we are inching closer every day. The Kansas Senate is still too often a place where great legislation is slowed or stopped, but the success of some votes and the closeness of others shows we are only a successful election away from truly achieving historic accomplishments on behalf of the people of Kansas.
In honor of your liberty,