Wichita-area Legislators Hear Pleas From Government


Yesterday I attended a meeting of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, held at Wichita State University. This meeting is billed as an opportunity for local governments to make their case to local legislators. Scheduled to start at 1:00 pm, it actually started at 1:20. Senator Carolyn McGinn chaired.

This meeting was better attended by area legislators than the meeting Tuesday evening for citizens. Still, some legislators spent a lot of time outside the meeting room in the lobby. The activity there was described to me as “networking.” That means interplay between legislators and lobbyists and local government officials.

(It seems that a running joke is how governments are calling their lobbyists their “representatives” or some other term besides lobbyist. This, I believe, reflects diminished opinion the public holds of lobbying.)

A theme of most speakers was “please don’t cut our funding.” This reflects the situation in Topeka, which is that the state is running a deficit this fiscal year, and the projections for the next fiscal year are not good.

Alan Conroy, Director of Kansas Legislative Research Department, was the first speaker. He presented an overview of the state general fund and provided some informative handout materials. There’s no good news in terms of the state budget. The financial crisis introduces uncertainty into the consensus estimates the state uses. News: The official consensus estimate from November places the deficit for fiscal 2009 (the budget year that ends on June 30, 2009) at $141 million. But the real number is likely to be closer to $200 million. This is the number that ultimately must be dealt with.

(The consensus revenue estimates are produced by Kansas government officials and university economists, and are the figures that must be used in the budget process. This prevents “battles of the estimates,” where different groups use different estimates of revenue.)

The materials presented contained a page of “revenue enhancements” that might be used to balance the budget. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a euphemism for increasing taxes. Here are some examples of various taxes and estimates of how changes would increase revenue for fiscal year 2010 (the budget year that starts July 1, 2009, and ends on June 30, 2010):

Increase by one mill the unified school district general fund tax base: $28.7 million.
Repeal the $20,000 residential exemption (additional local effort): $43.4 million.
Increase the sales and use tax rates by 0.1 percentage point: $38.1 million.
Increase the sales and use tax rates by 1.0 percentage point: $349.7 million.
Increase the individual income tax rate by 1.0 percentage point: $349.7 million.

(From the Kansas Department of Revenue: Compensating Use Tax is a tax paid on merchandise purchased from other states and used, stored, or consumed in Kansas on which no sales tax was paid. It is also due if the other state’s rate is less than the Kansas rate of 5.3% paid at the time of purchase. The tax protects Kansas businesses from unfair competition from out-of-state retailers who sell goods either tax-free or at a lower tax rate.)

An interesting question came from Senator Les Donovan asked about the school bond funding that the state must provide. Representative Brenda Landwehr asked a similar question. It seems there’s been some thought that this might be an area for cuts.

Don Beggs, President of Wichita State University, spoke about how the university has prepared to face cuts in funding.

Martin Libhart, Interim Superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district spoke next. The bond issue, he said, was a significant victory, because it allows the district to enhance student achievement. The most significant component of the bond issue, he said, is the effort to reduce class size. He promoted the WSU study of the 2000 bond issue. He believes that bond rates will come down and the district will be able to sell bonds at a favorable rate. It also creates a stimulus package for the city of Wichita. He believes that K-12 students should be college-ready when they graduate. The real dilemma school districts face is the mandates placed on schools by NCLB. When schools don’t hit targets, there are consequences. The district can’t scale back its production during tough economic times. The challenge is to preserve the infrastructure, which is mostly salaries and benefits. Reduced funding would undo the significant progress we’ve made.

Representative Huebert asked about universities expressing the need for remedial classes for incoming students. Libhart replied he believes the situation is getting better.

Representatives of Wichita’s aircraft industry — Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft in tis case — delivered a presentation that highlighted their economic importance to Wichita and Sedgwick County. It also emphasized, several times, the subsidy that other states (and countries) are giving to lure manufacturing industry, including aircraft, to their states. This question was asked: As you go back to Topeka, ask this question: What would other places pay to get the jobs that are here?

Bryan Derreberry of the Wichita Metro Chamber of commerce spoke. The Chamber, he said, markets economic development. Make our area the best possible place to locate a business. There are three priorities: 1. People. 2. Attractive and stable state economy. He said there is a need to provide incentives to business, and for business tax reform. 3. Quality of place. People seek community and state dynamics. Air transportation, particularly low-cost airfares, is vital. The Equus bed project is necessary to secure our water supply. Finally, grow our small business base. Fund Kansas small business development centers.

Carl Brewer, Mayor of Wichita spoke. He said our community makes a plea for sustained funding. We need low-cost airfares, technical training, and water supply. We want to present the City of Wichita as a partner in the battle of budget problems. He wants to aggressively seek our fair share of an upcoming federal stimulus package. He presented these two plans as being without major cost: allow cities to create entertainment districts, where alcoholic beverages can be consumed outside on the street. We must keep pace with other urban communities that have this. Traffic safety corridors, such as Kellogg (U.S. Highway 400), can save lives. Fines on these corridors are higher. He concluded with “The Wichita city council stands ready to work with state policy makers for positive change.”

Dave Unruh from the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners spoke. Please maintain a sensitivity to our problems, he urged. Please support affordable airfares. He cited a CEDBR study of benefits. The aviation cluster is also important. We are one of five aviations clusters in the world. The county is also supportive of a comprehensive transportation plan and the economic stimulus it brings. Any reduction in support for human services will affect a vulnerable population. The jail is overcrowded. The county opposes efforts to shift inmates from state facilities to county jails.

Representatives of Kansas Regional Area Economic Partnership spoke. Kristey Williams, the mayor of Augusta, spoke about the need to maintain the affordable airfares project, citing a study by WSU of the huge benefit of this program.

The meeting ended at 4:50 pm.


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