Archive for Monday, February 17, 2014

Kansas Legislature producing little more than ‘shiny objects,’ Baldwin representatives say

State Sen. Tom Holland talks on an issue before the 2014 Legislature while Rep. John Wilson listens at a town hall meeting the two Democrats had at the Saturday at the Lumberyard Arts Center.

State Sen. Tom Holland talks on an issue before the 2014 Legislature while Rep. John Wilson listens at a town hall meeting the two Democrats had at the Saturday at the Lumberyard Arts Center.

February 17, 2014

Baldwin City’s two representatives in the Kansas Legislature said the month-old 2014 legislative session is producing little but “shiny objects” of social legislation meant to detract from the state’s coming fiscal problems.

State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, told 13 area residents at a town hall meeting Saturday at the Lumberyard Arts Center that expanded gun carry in vehicles, elimination of no-fault divorce and a proposal protecting those who refuse service to gay couples on moral grounds were advancing as the Republican conservative majorities in the House and Senate avoided election-year discussion of the consequences of tax cuts enacted the prior two sessions.

Those tax cuts, which reduced income tax rates and eliminated taxes on non-wage income for businesses filing as limited liability corporations, mean the state is running an annual deficit of $150 million. That will get worse as other approved tax cuts begin in the years ahead, Holland said.

The effects of the tax cuts will be seen in K-12 education in the coming years through greater reliance on local property taxes, further consolidation of school districts, higher student fees and degradation of classroom education, Holland and Wilson said.

The two men said, as Democrats, they are in the decided minority in Topeka. Holland said he was one of seven Democrats in the 40-member Senate.

Holland’s blunt assessment was that the 2012 tax cuts shielded from taxation Brownback’s wealthy supporters, such as the Koch brothers from Wichita. In a search for more revenue to help mitigate those cuts, the Legislature in 2013 shifted the tax burden to the poor and middle class by such things as making permanent a temporary sales tax and the elimination of the income tax mortgage deduction and homestead renters deduction, he said.

The only thing that could make the Legislature focus on fiscal policy would be the anticipated Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school finance, the two men said.

Holland said he expected the ruling to be announced at the session’s end in April or May.

“I think the Supreme Court is going to give the Legislature one last chance to make it right,” he said.

Because there hasn’t been much change on the Supreme Court since 2005, when it last found the state was underfunding K-12 education, Holland said he expected a ruling upholding a lower court’s finding the Legislature needed to increase education funding by $440 million a year.

While avoiding discussion of state fiscal policy, conservatives are content with advancing “shiny objects,” such as the so-called religious freedom bill the House passed last week, Wilson said. The bill would allow private sector or government employees to refuse service to gay couples on moral grounds. The bill was seen by supporters as a proactive safeguard should a court strike down the state’s voter-approved constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

Wilson said he was “disappointed” with the House's passage of the bill.

“I tried everything I could to fight that,” he said. “It hurts a lot of people. It hurts business.”

The latter objection at least temporarily derailed the bill when Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she wouldn’t support it as written. That announcement was made as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and such Fortune 500 companies as AT&T announced opposition to the bill, Wilson said.

Holland and Wilson said also influencing Wagle were the 30,000 emails and many phone calls legislators received expressing opposition to the bill.

Holland addressed the bill the TV lobby introduced, which would prevent municipalities from bringing or helping bring high-speed fiber optics to their communities. Baldwin City is working on an agreement with Free State Broadband that would issue industrial revenue bonds to the local company to finance bringing gigabit cable to the city.

The bill was pulled for a rewrite the day before it was to have a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee because of widespread opposition, Holland said. He has not heard anything new on the proposed legislation.

In response to a question about a House bill that would prevent the state from adopting K-12 Common Core standards for reading, math and science, Holland and Wilson said any such move would be unlawful because the state’s constitution delegates those decisions to the Kansas State Board of Education.

Common Core is mischaracterized as a federal effort to standardize education, Holland said. A group of states initiated the effort, and Kansas became involved because it was revisiting its standards, Holland said.

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