February 9 Update

We have begun our fourth week of the 2015 legislative session. Legislation has been introduced in committees and public hearings have been held, but no major legislation has been passed. By the time you read this article, the legislature should be starting an awkward transition from a waltz to the polka. One of the first moves the legislature will have to make this year is mid-year spending cuts in a recission bill (Senate Bill 4). It, along with the Governor’s allotments, will take money out of highways, children’s programs, and the state’s pension payments for the 2015 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Since the budget bills for fiscal year 2015 were passed in 2013 and 2014, the state of Kansas has fallen off a fiscal cliff created by the legislature. Federal tax law changes have accounted for a small part of the state’s insufficient funds, but for the most part, the major 2012 and 2013 tax changes have completely flipped a $587.8 million ending balance at the end of 2013 into an even larger deficit.

In the Governor’s State of the State address, he spoke of three major areas that he sees as the problem and the solution to Kansas’s deteriorated fiscal situation: K-12 education, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS) and the state’s Medicaid program, now known as KanCare. It is true that these public resources and employee benefits represent a lion’s share of the state’s budget, but state expenditures of $6.1 billion in 2015 are about the same as they were in 2008. Having served as a budget committee leader during the crisis budget situations caused by the world financial crisis, it is very disappointing to see the state basically in the same situation again while most other states have surpluses.

Often, crisis-based decisions lead to unintended consequences and false choices that are basically like robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are many state functions like schools and roads and access to basic healthcare that we as taxpayers can either pay for now or pay a lot more for later in prisons, driving delays, and unpaid emergency room expenses.

In the near future, a lot of the funding cuts the Governor has proposed are one-time sweeps that will need to be repaid within a year or two or else risk further harm to the state’s creditworthiness. As the state relies more and more on borrowing, our lower credit rating will cost Kansas taxpayers year after year without receiving any tangible benefit in return.

While the budget and tax committees are busy trying to figure out how to balance the budget, other committees are working on policy as well.. One proposal would completely remove any requirement for background checks or a safety course for those who carry a concealed firearm (SB 45). Certainly, the vast majority of gun owners are law abiding citizens. It concerns me, however, that law enforcement will not be able to lawfully check who is lawfully or unlawfully carrying a gun. Another proposal by Secretary of State Kris Kobach would allow voters to mark one box at the top of the ballot and vote for a party, rather than having to read and consider candidates by name. Apparently, the Secretary thinks that President Washington was just being fussy when he admonished the country against partisanship and factionalism in his farewell address.

Of course, there are still many areas where legislators work together without regard to ideology or partisanship. I hope to detail more of those efforts in a future update, including the formation of a Senate Rural Caucus to focus on the agriculture and local issues that affect a large part of our state. Kansas Day is also always a good reminder of what our state can do, and last week, our State celebrated its 154th birthday. It was nice to celebrate part of it with Lauren Galusha and her family from Maize. Lauren received First Place for 6th grade in the Happy Birthday, Kansas! student photo contest.

This year I am serving on Agriculture, Natural Resources, Judiciary and a new committee, Corrections and Juvenile Justice. This past fall, I chaired the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

It is always great to see all of you who make the trip to Topeka for issues important to you. If you are planning a trip to the capitol and have time, please call ahead and let me know you will be there. Our days can be very busy with committee meetings, but we can always step out to say hello. I still have some slots available if students between the ages of 12-17 are interested in serving as a Senate Page. My office number is 785-296-7377.