Wichita-area legislative meeting report, commentary

Wendy Aylworth provides reporting and analysis from Saturday’s meeting of the South-central Kansas Legislative Delegation with citizens.

Protesters adamantly in favor of a one cent per dollar sales tax increase crowded the sidewalk outside the South-Central Kansas Legislative Forum Saturday morning. Some wore purple shirts and some held signs reading “A Penny for Education” and “Support Our Schools.” There was no one with a sign opposing a tax increase.

Inside the meeting room the crowd appeared overwhelmingly in favor of the tax increase. Sen. Jean Schodorf, who arrived late, pointed out this is what she wanted to hear, “what we should be doing.”

The audience was not polled regarding their wishes, but if there were any opposed to the tax increase they went unseen. People carrying signs promoting the tax continued to do so inside the building, during the forum, and the voices from the audience during the meeting were clearly in favor of the sales tax increase.

Rep. Kasha Kelley of Arkansas City was invited to present a short presentation on the state budget, but was opposed by Rep. Jim Ward, who, sitting at the center of the legislative table tried to eliminate it by insisting “We’re not going to make these people sit here ’til we’re done with a presentation, we’re going to listen to their questions first, aren’t we?” Shouts arose from the audience agreed: “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Fortunately moderator Steve Brunk held firm, “We do have a format and I will follow it.” Jim Ward dropped his forehead to the table, then got up and left the staging area.

Rep. Kelley opened the presentation by reading a few news headlines, “U.S. AAA Bond Rating Threatened” and “Congressional Budget Office Reports Debt Will Rise to 90% of Gross Domestic Product,” explaining the state budget decisions we need to make are tied to the nation’s financial situation. A few audience members seemed inflamed; throughout her presentation they would interrupt and shout. This continued through the remainder of the forum, each time Rep. Kelley would speak. During the budget presentation audience members claimed the budget numbers were Representative Kelley’s “opinion,” or that she was “campaigning.” One woman seated opposite Rep. Kelley claimed the figures were “Koch Industry figures.” Rep. Kelley repeatedly stated the figures had come from the financial analysts for the state legislature.

According to her report, education spending in Kansas has increased substantially since 2005, only in this past year sustaining a slight drop. As a percentage of the state budget, education remains 65 to 66 percent. She further made it clear that in formerly robust economic times the state did not aggressively pay on its debt, and now has a debt of more than $4 billion in principle, not including the interest that must be paid at regular intervals.

The state faces the difficult situation of trying to tax more, from a shrinking pool from which to collect taxes. In fiscal year 2009 corporate income tax receipts fell drastically, down 44.4 percent from fiscal year 2008 receipts. In January 2010 state receipts were $31 million below projected revenues, and in February 2010 we were $71 million below. We are now at $512 million in the hole. This problem is unlikely to be solved this year — it will continue.

In answer to a question from the audience Rep. Kelley explained the manner in which the state gets into debt. A simplified example is that while individuals might use a credit card, the state can “bond.” If the state doesn’t have on hand the money they wish to spend, the state sells bonds on the market and that debt owed, plus the interest, come out of the state’s general fund.

Budget presentation concluded, the moderator asked which of the legislators would like to address the question on the debt. At this time Sen. Jean Schodorf arrived, and, taking the seat at the center of the staging area immediately said, “I would like to request that we listen to the citizens. We don’t have very much time and I want to get some feedback on the budget and how to pay for it.” Rep. Geraldine Flaherty added, “And the Wichita Eagle said this would be the last day that our constituents could talk to us.” Jim Ward added, “Exactly.” Thunderous applause and whoops of agreement followed.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goodeau of the 29th Senate District maintained that as a representative of the students of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, it’s shameful we aren’t willing to spend money on our teachers and kids to fully fund education, adding that Superintendent John Allison says we may not be able to buy new textbooks in the coming years: “We would be behind in history.” “We should fully fund education,” she added.

Geraldine Flaharty of the 98th District added if we don’t spend this money on education our children will be affected for generations — it’s like eating your “seed corn.” “We know that business makes decisions on an educated workforce and on infrastructure, not on tax structure. They’ll look for tax benefits after they’ve decided a good place to be. Funding our schools is probably the highest priority that we have, and further cuts — they’re just not going to be tolerated!” There was loud applause and whoops of assent from the audience.

Rep. Melody McCray-Miller of the 89th District told the sign-carriers it was wonderful to see them as she drove in; this shows you are in effect and full force letting us know where your priorities lie. She will not tolerate any further cuts in education. She urged them to come to Topeka this week for the legislative debate. Regarding the budget shortfall, she pointed blame toward the party currently in the majority in both the state House and Senate. “They have allowed this continuing outpacing of expenditures over revenues. It’s not those of us who are fighting for the frail and elderly, who are fighting for the disabled, that are fighting for social services — what’s important to you — who are the cause of the fiscal problems. We need to see you in Topeka this week,” she emphasized.

Sen. Jean Schodorf of Senate District 25 spoke of cuts in education hurting, and pointed out she was in Topeka this last week trying to add money in for social services and for meals on wheels. We try to keep from making cuts in education, and we want to take care of our most vulnerable citizens, but we have to be responsible — everybody is making less money. “It’s very sobering here today and it’s going to be very hard work going back. We have to balance the budget, and I guess that’s what I wanted to hear today — what you want us to do.”

Rep. Melany Barnes of the 95th House District, who was selected in January to replace Tom Sawyer, voiced objection to the budget presentation. “I want to make it clear that I got up and I went and stood to the back because I didn’t think it was fair that we had to go through this presentation that is from a policy institute that’s from a narrow viewpoint, when we have all these people here [in the audience] who have a very broad viewpoint. [loud applause] I think it’s important to say we have cut taxes $12 billion.” She continued, saying “This year is a test year,” and “we must look at our priorities and who do we hold most dear. … Do we hold dare continuing to cut taxes and borrowing money? I think this state needs a new direction.” There was long and loud applause from the audience.

Again the moderator clarified: “The numbers in the presentation come directly from Legislative Research, from State of Kansas Legislative Research, and the numbers they get come directly from the Department of Education, Social Services, etc. These are Kansas Legislative Research numbers.”

Rep. Kelley explained it’s unlikely that a budget with cuts only will be able to pass this year. She suggested a fourth option that would only occur if citizens insist their representatives implement it. Property unnecessarily owned by the state is worth more than $10 billion (not including the turnpike, regents buildings, or assets valued below $5 million). These include agricultural lands that farmers would like to buy back, buildings, and other property. Since the state is a lousy landlord, these buildings could be sold, and space for the state could be rented as needed. “Why not sell things we don’t need? It would get us net ahead. It’s a good answer.” Shouts of “No, No, No, NO” came from the audience. If there was support, it was unheard.

Next a question submitted from the audience read, “Why don’t you raise the sales tax 1% statewide? Raising the sales tax would be non-discriminatory.” The response from the audience was thunderous applause, giving the appearance of mass support for the tax. The moderator asked the legislators to speak toward their position on implementing a one-cent sales tax increase. A few of the legislators answered the question, but several did not; instead speaking tangentially, or finding other topics.

Marc Rhoades of the 72nd House District (Newton) pointed out veterans, especially those in the soldiers’ home, of whom there did not appear to be any representatives present, have been struggling for medical and other assistance, with the state continually removing funding from their account which they had rightfully won through a lottery ticket.
On another topic, to decrease expenditures, he proposed looking for fraud and paying a contingency fee to a contracted finder. He later added, “I do not support a tax increase.”

Jim Ward of the 88th House District in a long, partisan, and emphatic speech decried cuts in the budget, and ridiculed the Republican belief that having less government and lower taxes would grow the economy. To give the impression people were dying from cuts he stated “Of the disabilities community, 6,000 people are waiting for services and 65 people have died while waiting for services in the disability community.” He continued his stump speech: “At what point do you cut so much that you no longer have meals on wheels, that there is no disability community? … Representative Kelley forgot to talk about another part of the spending we do, we spent over $12 billion in tax cuts in the last 10 years. We spent over $4 billion in sales tax exemptions. We spend money in a lot of different ways and we should put all that on the table and have a discussion.”

He did not address the question of whether or not he would vote to raise the state sales tax by one cent on the dollar. His partisan speech, however, elicited great applause and cheers from the audience.

Sen. Dick Kelsey of the 26th Senate District addressed the intense partisan feelings this year, and his hope for bipartisan cooperation. (No mention of the one cent sales tax).

Sen. Jean Schodorf, when asked would she vote to raise the sales tax by 1% statewide said, at a time when she did not have a microphone, “I would do it.”

David Crum of the 77th House District (Augusta), said “Since 2000 we have increased funding from about $200 million a year to $500 million a year to the waiver program (disabilities) … For the first time since World War II, the average income in our state went down last year. It’s no wonder we’re in a bind when we have declining revenues and the high number of unemployed in our state.”

Geraldine Flaharty of the 98th House District: “When we get a budget that takes care of schools, takes care of disabled, takes care of our infrastructure, looks after the frail and elderly, and we see what money we have to have, then I think you’ll see me and others vote for the necessary revenue to fund it.”

Rep. Steve Brunk, the moderator, interjected how this illustrates the different philosophical world viewpoints. One side says “We need to know how much money we’re going to spend before we set our budget.” The other side says “We need to know how much money we have, before we know how much money we’re going to spend.” These are two different ways to look at it.

Gail Finney of the 84th House District: “I believe in supporting my constituents. I would do anything that I could if I could increase the revenue, I would support some of the opportunities to raise taxes.”

Melanie Barnes of the 95th House District: “And I echo that … We’ve cut programs for addiction treatment in prisons.”

Rep. Kelley noted the effects on the economy if Kansas raises the state sales tax by 1%: “Dr John Wong of WSU says that 5,600 jobs would be lost. Dr. Art Hall [of KU] says 26,000 jobs would be lost.

Rep. Dan Kerschen of the 93rd House District: “I’m in favor of the tax on nursing home beds; it will raise federal money, it’s a good bill. But the private nursing homes are affected differently.” (No mention of the one cent sales tax.)

Rep. Phil Hermanson of the 96th House District said that cutting services is not a partisan issue. “I toured the Hutch Prison. I found out our GDs have gone down.” (No mention of the one cent sales tax.)

Melody McCray-Miller of the 89th House District said the answer is “What am I raising the tax for? We need a budget. We need to know what our priorities are.” She further addressed the “issue of businesses and tax incentives, and compare that with education, frail, elderly, senior and disabled .. We can consistently cut taxes on schools, frail, elderly, and the disabled, the invisible ones, by the way. We can pass bills that we know are costing our taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars but we don’t know what we’re getting for it.” The ideas she appeared to believe are there are too many cuts in taxation of business, and they are benefiting unfairly.

Geraldine Flaherty of the 98th House District: “I stand by my original statement, that when I see an acceptable budget I will support whatever taxes are necessary to fund it.” There was loud applause from the audience.

Sen. Oletha-Faust Goodeau of the 29th Senate District said “I have a stack of handwritten letters from senior citizens across the state of Kansas saying please raise my taxes. They are saying that they supported the one cent sales tax increase for the downtown arena, why can’t we do it as opposed to cutting services to social services? Again, loud applause from the audience.

Melany Barnes of the 95th House District: “And I add to that. 99% of the emails I’m receiving say ‘Do the right thing. Raise the sales tax.’ Some say, ‘Raise the sin tax.’ … Years ago folks voted for the lottery, and the accountability for that money is lax.”

Gene Suellentrop of the 101st House District: “The majority of my constituents request that we not raise taxes. So many of them are unemployed or underemployed and they’re sincerely requesting that we not raise taxes. They want us to grow jobs and grow the economy.”

Sen. Les Donovan of the 27th Senate District: Regarding taxation bills: “in our committee we amended the sales tax increase down to a .7 cent tax increase for three years instead of a one cent tax increase for two years.” Regarding a soda tax: “One cent per teaspoon of sugar in soft drinks. There’s approximately nine teaspoons of sugar in one can of soft drink … I was not necessarily a supporter of that tax increase, but as a chair of that committee I felt I had a job to do.”

Commentary

Contrary to its advertised purpose, this forum certainly was not an occasion where the legislators wished to hear from their constituents. Legislators Ward, Flaherty and Schodorf claimed listening was of utmost importance and a reason for skipping over the budget presentation. Yet only those in the audience who ignored common courtesy, carried signs and shouted were heard, giving the media license to claim such was the “voice of the people.” If legislators were truly interested in our opinion they’d conduct a scientific, random poll. Questions submitted to them on paper went unanswered, for the most part.

Additionally, major media chose what version they wished to report. When questions are simply read out loud to no one in particular and legislators can choose to remain silent a citizen cannot get answers.

Due to our being a representative form of government it’s not each citizen’s task to analyze and track every government bill or policy. This is the representatives’ job. It’s extremely important that we choose candidates to represent us who have a core belief in limited government and will stand by those principles regardless of the situation. If citizens want unfettered free markets, and true limited government, now — this month, in this year — is the time to run committed candidates for office.

Can we afford to wait another two years or more?

3 Comments

  • Wichitator -

    It looks like the well organized tax consumers outnumbered taxpayers at this legislative hearing. A lot of taxpayers don’t have Saturdays off.

    In most of our surrounding states, the voters get to approve higher taxes. That is the much vilified Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) from Colorado requires. Voter approval of state taxes is also commonplace in our region.

    Everyone I’ve ever talked to at the statehouse tells me that the powerful and very liberal KNEA teachers union is the strongest lobbying force at the capitol. The union also funds a bunch of political action committees funding legislators. I’m sure that they were well represented at this meeting and this included the legislators who receive school district paychecks or are retired teachers. I have never heard of any of them ever declining to vote because of their conflict of interest on state school spending issues.

  • Dismal Scientist -

    I work for USD 259 and the budget cuts are directly affecting me and I am AGAINST A ONE CENT SALES TAX. The people you saw at the delegation meeting were SEIU leeches who are being overpaid a “non-market” wage. I would be glad to see this whole thing privatized as it should be. An education system run by the government is totalitarian in its very nature; centralized, inefficient, corrupt, non-creative!

  • as a senior citizen,I am adamantly opposed to ANY tax increases ;raising sales taxes is like cutting your own throat! The studies re:effects of raising sales taxes by 1cent; Prof.Wong “used the IMPLAN 3 MODEL,which has no capacity to account for consumer or business behavioral response.”Dr. Arthur Hall,of the KU School of Business” used a dynamic model that explicitly attempts to account for the behavioral response of consumer,businesses,and government over time.”(Wong says 56oo jobs lost,Hall says 26,000.)
    My spending most certainly will be decreased!! Senior citizens asking for tax increases,hard to believe!!

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