Kansas budget, taxes, still being worked on

At the Kansas statehouse yesterday, some progress was made on the budget, but much work remains. With the session about to end, large decisions about taxation and spending have yet to be made.

Talking to one lobbyist who has been observing statehouse politics for many years, I said “This is a heck of a way to make public policy.” He replied we’re way past considerations of public policy — we’re talking politics now. I remembered my political science professor in college, who said the definition of politics is “who gets what, when, and how.”

A matter that is still on the calendar is the transportation bill, HB 2650 (fiscal note). This bill was passed by the House earlier in the session and is on the Senate’s calendar. Yesterday many supporters of the bill were in the statehouse, some wearing blue buttons reading “Highway investment means jobs.” Another button read “Safe roads save lives.”

The halls were also packed with advocates for the disabled, including many people in wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Patrick Terick, Governmental Affairs director for Cerebral Palsy Research Center in Wichita, said that some programs such as one that creates custom wheelchair cushions have been cut by large amounts.

In the afternoon session of the Senate, an amendment offered to its budget bill provided evidence of the diversity of Kansas and the difference between wealthy and poor areas of the state. The amendment, offered by Senator Karin Brownlee, a Republican from Olathe, would route KPERS contributions in a way that lets these payments be used in calculating a district’s local option budget. (The LOB allows school districts to levy property taxes. There is a limit as to how much tax can be levied, that being a percentage of the district’s budget.) By routing KPERS contributions in a different way, those payments could be used to increase the LOB limit. This would not change the amount paid to KPERS, or change the amount that districts would report they spent.

During debate, some senators pointed out that poorer school districts would not have the ability to increase their LOB. Senator Anthony Hensley, a Republican from Topeka and Senate Minority Leader, said that many school districts cannot afford to raise local property taxes.

Senator Janis Lee, who represents a geographically large district in northwest Kansas, said this amendment is “disequalizing,” referring to the Kansas school equalization process, which sends money from wealthy districts to those with less assessed property value per student.

Senator John Vratil, a Republican from Leawood in Johnson County and Senate Vice President, said that Johnson County contributes 28 percent of the tax revenue the state collects, while receiving only 11 percent back in return. He also mentioned that Johnson County school districts are in the lowest ten percent of districts in operating costs per student. Given that, he asked “Is it too much that we have the authority to tax ourselves to provide a quality education?” Brownlee repeated this sentiment in her closing.

On a roll call vote, the amendment failed by 16 to 22 votes.

Later Senator Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, offered an amendment that would raise $300 million in revenue through a variety of methods, most importantly the sale of some Kansas state-owned assets. The amendment would set a timeline for the identification, evaluation, and sale of assets, with some sold in time to be used in fiscal year 2011, the budget year that starts on July 1, 2010.

Preliminary reports indicate that the state owns some $12 billion to $16 billion in assets. The Masterson amendment called for selling $175 million in fiscal year 2011. This figure is somewhere between one percent and two percent of the state-owned assets.

In debate, some senators opposed this plan as being unrealistic. In a roll call vote, the amendment failed with 12 yea votes and 28 nays.

A related amendment by Senator Mark Taddiken passed in a later session. It calls for the creation of an inventory of state assets and a prioritized list of assets that could be sold, but does not require the sale.

Senator Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Fowler, offered an amendment that would limit the growth of state government spending to the rate of population growth plus the rate of inflation. Some states have limitations like this, and they can be useful in restraining the growth of government.

Remarks during debate included the concern that with an aging population and the state’s entitlement structure, state spending may need to increase rapidly to meet the needs of the elderly. Senator Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, said that we are not funding the state’s need for services adequately now, and we should try to be in a position to fund more agencies and programs.

This amendment failed by a vote of 15 to 25.

In the House, it was a waiting game all day as the alternative budget bill — “Feuerborn Amendment” — was being prepared. The new budget amendment was to be available at 8:00 am this morning, but it was not, and the house recessed with plans to resume at 11:00 am. But those plans were revised, with the House now planning to meet at 1:30 pm.

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