Following is a summary of some of the key issues that were debated this past session. You can let me know what you think of these and other issues by clicking on the Public Forum above or on facebook or by emailing me at email@example.com. It is a pleasure representing you in Topeka and I always enjoy hearing your ideas and concerns. -Tom
The most powerful expression of our values appears in the form of the annual state budget. I believe that the state should budget like a family. A family lives within its means while taking care of its children and its seniors.
I feel that the state needs to go on a low fat diet. We need to cut waste while improving the efficiency of state programs.I feel that we could improve our fiscal management if the state would pay its debts off during the good times, so we won't have to raise taxes or cut vital programs during the bad times.
While we have made progress in coming up with real savings and making state government more efficient, we need to do more. For example, in 2009 we implemented a plan to make our state buildings more energy efficient. This plan should save us millions of dollars over the next 20 years.
This year was particularly difficult for the bottom line. Kansas faces a huge decline in state tax revenue. Part of the decline was anticipated, but the reduction in state income tax revenue was much greater than expected.
Overall the state has taken in about $650 million less than it did before the reckless 2012 tax plan was implemented. As a result both Moody's and Standard & Poors downgraded the state's credit rating.
As the state spent more than it took in, the Governor used transfers from the State Highway Fund, the state retirement fund and the Children's Initiative Fund to balance the state budget.
MORE ON THE STATE BUDGET
In 2015, the Legislature passed a huge tax increase (hailed by many newspapers as the largest tax increase in Kansas History). This huge tax increase gave Kansas the second highest sales tax on food in the country. I led the floor debate against this huge tax increase on working families and seniors. Unfortunately we lost as the Pro-Brownback forces were able to get the bare minimum number of votes needed to pass the bill.
Instead of higher food taxes, we need the 330,000 business owners who were removed completely from the income tax rolls in 2012 to pay their fair share.
State budgeting is a complicated process that involves tough choices,compromise and prioritizing at several levels of government. I am committed to keeping our budget priorities in touch with the priorities of everyday Kansans. I will also continue to work in a bi-partisan manner to balance the budget without tax increases on working families or seniors.
Unfortunately the "Slash & Burn" approach mostly won out over those of us advocating for cutting waste and improving efficiency.
The budget ignored or dramatically reduced funding for a number of key items that are critical to Kansas communities, such as in-home services for seniors,cuts to the food sales tax refund program, it did not restore the cuts our schools have been subject to the last 3 years, and it took money away from early childhood and education programs. Just to name a few.
Though lawmakers face challenges from a state income tax that is vanishing, we have a responsibility to invest in our children, our aging parents and our neighbors in need. Failing to provide for vulnerable seniors, refusing to fund healthcare measures and eliminating necessary social services for Fiscal Year 2016 will only move Kansas in the wrong direction. It is time now to redirect our priorities so they reflect the most important values of our state.
It is also time to step up our efforts to cut out waste and make state government run more efficiently. We have made some progress in the last few years, but we have a lot of work left to do.
We also must repeal part of the 2012 tax plan. The loophole that allows more than 330,000 business owners to pay no Kansas income tax must be repealed. We will not be able to solve our budget crisis, properly fund our schools or take care of our vulnerable citizens until we do.
Funding our children's education is always one of the most important debates we have in the Legislature. Funding of K-12 education takes up about one half of the state general fund.
The House approved legislation in 2008 that increased state funding for public schools by $37.2 million in the 2009-2010 school year. It added a fourth year to the school finance plan originally passed in 2005. The legislation was debated at length and explored differing needs between rural, suburban and urban school districts. Under this plan, base state aid per pupil (BSAPP) increased to $4,492 beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, increasing the rate in place at the time by $59. That is a 1.3% increase in the base funding over 2008. A small increase but it was important because it allowed school districts to almost keep pace with inflation. .
Unfortunately in 2011, the legislature passed and the Governor signed into law, the largest cut to school funding in our state's history. This law cut the base aid per pupil from $4492 to $3800. This cut more than wiped out all of the progress made in school funding from 2005-2009. This cut has forced many local school districts to raise property taxes, lay-off teachers and close schools.
I am fully committed to improving our children's education. I feel that the state should set a goal of reducing class sizes to 17 children or less in grades 1 through 3. Those are the most vital grades for children to learn how to read, write and to do basic math. Children who don't learn the basics in the early grades get behind in school and almost never catch up. Most rural districts already have small classes, Wichita children should get the same benefit.
The health care compact gives the State Legislature the primary responsibility to regulate health care for all Kansans. It also gives the Kansas Legislature the authority to suspend the operation of any and all federal "laws, rules, regulations and orders" having anything to do with health care.
Primary responsibility means that the Kansas Legislature could take over Medicare in Kansas. The Kansas legislature gets to decide who is eligible for Medicare (and Medicaid for that matter). The Kansas legislature decides what will be covered and what will not be covered. The Legislature could divert money now going to seniors into other programs and they could outlaw any and all procedures it doesn't like.
The state has already done a poor job trying to run Kan Care. The state's privatized health care system to administer Medicaid in Kansas. I have heard many complaints particularly from the disabled and blind who have had their benefits greatly cut under Kan Care. I can't imagine how many complaints I will receive from seniors once the state tries to give Medicare to Kan Care.
The multi-state health care compact will not go into affect until it is approved by Congress. Unfortunately this Congress seems crazy enough to pass it. And it isn't subject to a Presidential veto. So this really could happen.
As you can probably already tell I opposed this health care compact last session and I will continue to oppose it.
One of the bright spots of the Kansas economy has been the wind power industry. Kansas ranks #2 out of all the States in total potential wind power, behind only Texas.
So far 13,000 new jobs have been created in Kansas by the wind energy industry. And Kansas ranks #1 in the the nation in the number of wind turbines under production.
I believe that the State should continue to encourage the growth of this very important industry in Kansas.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is "does the State of Kansas tax social security benefits?"
In 2008 we passed a law exempting those making $75,000 or less from paying any state income tax on their Social Security benefits.
I supported this tax cut, I feel that seniors have given us a lot and deserve to retire without having the burden of paying state income tax on their social security benefits.