First of all, congratulations to all of the graduates of 2015. It’s a great time of year for families, teachers and students to get together and recognize our common commitment to education. Trying to ensure that every kid–urban and rural, wealthy and poor–has access to an equitable public education in Kansas is something that many of us in the state Capitol take very seriously.
Graduation season is also usually the traditional end point of the Kansas legislative session, but not this year. The traditional 90th day deadline came and passed last Saturday without any agreement on how to craft a balanced budget for the 2016 state fiscal year beginning on July 1. Every day the legislature is in session costs taxpayers $43,000. I, and a few other legislators, have signed a waiver so that our salary ended on day 90.
Budget negotiations have moved to a Conference Committee, of which, only two members of the House and two members of the Senate need to sign a final product before sending it to an up-or-down vote in each chamber. The full Kansas House of Representatives has not had the opportunity to debate or amend its budget. If as expected, the Kansas House is only able to vote on the final product, 123 out of 125 representatives’ districts will be cut out of the ability to amend the state budget for two years.
The budget conference committee has stalled as a package that still leaves the state with a $400 million deficit. After several years of budget cuts or flat funding, negotiators argue that more cuts would affect essential services or endanger Federal matching funds. Finding a way to increase revenues without simply rolling back part of the tax shift passed two years ago seems to be the main drag on coming to a solution.
Republican Rep. Mark Hutton, of Wichita, has put forward several proposals that would roll back part of the 2012 income tax exemption for 330,000 Kansas businesses. Senate President Susan Wagle has also stated publicly her support for amending that policy, and Senate Tax Chair Donovan has proposed replacing that policy with an employee tax credit for businesses.
Part of the problem in these negotiations is that some Johnson County Senators are insisting on increasing taxes on farmers as part of any deal. I think that Kansas still has enough rural and mixed-district Senators to serve as a firewall against attacks on Kansas’s family farms, and I will continue to make it a priority to fight for our state’s first and largest industry.
Some of you may have heard about the controversy the legislature had with the transportation network company, Uber. The legislature passed a bill that ensured Uber drivers had basic insurance protections required of all drivers, and that they could also pass a basic background check. Uber finally agreed to negotiate with Kansas to ensure such protections after refusing to do so and the service should be back up and running soon.
The big business group Uncork Kansas finally got a vote by the full Senate on an attempt to expand access to alcohol in the state. While this 30-page floor amendment was sold as only dealing with the sale of full-strength beer, it would have allowed beer up to 12% strength and expanded lottery ticket sales as well. If at some point we want to have a full debate on this issue, we should follow the regular process with plenty of public notice. At this point, we know the bill would hurt small business, but we have no proof it would create more jobs. For these reasons, I voted against the amendment.
There are still a few issues swirling around besides tax and budget issues. As always, I welcome your input and hope to be back on the farm and working in the district soon.