Lawrence educators packed Cordley School's library Tuesday to support a new tax-increase plan offered by a bipartisan group of freshman House members.
"I couldn't be more thrilled," Supt. Randy Weseman said. "A: I admire courage. B: When I get people stepping forward for public education, I get emotional."
Sixteen House members elected for the first time in November -- 11 Republicans and five Democrats -- fanned out across the state to outline their plan to increase the state sales tax of 5.3 cents per dollar by a half-cent and impose an income tax surcharge of 3.5 percent. The proposal also would cancel previously approved cutbacks of the sales tax in 2004 and 2005.
The money raised would be pumped into public schools and higher education and used to restore cuts made in social services. The legislation is expected to get a quick hearing this week in the House Taxation Committee.
Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, said it was time for the 2003 Legislature to quit seeking gimmicks to keep state government afloat. Reaching deeper into taxpayers' pockets isn't popular, he said, but that's what was required to maintain essential programs.
"We promised constituents we'd do the right thing," Holland said, "not the thing to get us elected."
The Legislature reconvenes today after a scheduled 3 1/2-week break.
Lawmakers have approved a $10.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but face a funding shortfall of at least $255 million.
Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat in the freshman coalition, said the group's proposal was the first "real viable revenue plan" to be offered this session.
In fiscal year 2004, which begins July 1, the plan would raise nearly $267 million.
"This is a proposal that we believe addresses the short-term needs of the state and also provides for the long-term future security of education and social services," Davis said.
The freshman plan would:
- Add $28.9 million to public schools, which would increase base state aid per pupil by $50, from $3,863 per student to $3,913 per student. The plan also would increase per-student funding by $50 for the two succeeding years.
- Add $25 million to the state pension system to reduce the gap in the system's unfunded liability.
- Add $21 million to reduce waiting lists for social services.
- Add $9.2 million for state employee health insurance costs.
- The plan also would start kicking in funds in July 2004 for higher education reforms that were adopted in the late 1990s.
|The group of 16 Kansas House freshmen who are backing tax increases as a solution to the state's budget problems are:
Republicans William Kassebaum of Burdick, Stephanie Sharp of Lenexa, Ed O'Malley of Roeland Park, Cindy Neighbor of Shawnee, Roger Reitz of Manhattan, Terrie Huntington of Mission Hills, Rob Boyer of Olathe, Jeff Jack of Parsons, Barbara Craft of Junction City, Kevin Yoder of Overland Park and Jim Yonally of Overland Park.
Democrats Paul Davis of Lawrence, Tom Holland of Baldwin, Joshua Svaty of Ellsworth, Sydney Carlin of Manhattan, and Roger Toelkes of Topeka.
Reaction to the tax proposition was swift.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' spokeswoman said Sebelius was "encouraged" by the group's work, agreed with its spending priorities, but still opposed a tax increase.
Question of timing
Sebelius met with the rebel group and expressed concern about the timing of a tax proposal, said freshman Rep. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan.
But, Reitz said, if taxes weren't increased during the current session, "next year will be a disaster to deal with these problems."
Kathy Cook, president of Kansas Families United for Public Education, said she was relieved to know some lawmakers were willing to tell the truth about the state's financial dilemma.
"While our veteran leaders have wasted months playing political games with smoke and mirrors, these newcomers have stood up and demonstrated the political courage and fiscal responsibility that we should expect from all of our elected officials," she said.
Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Assn., called the proposal a step in the right direction.
"It's good to see a debate on revenue is going to happen," he said.
Jim White, Baldwin schools superintendent, said it was important that a group of lawmakers had stepped away from the "blame game" in Topeka between Republicans and Democrats to think seriously about the state's future.
"Isn't that refreshing to have somebody say they're sick of that mess?" he said.
In Lawrence, Weseman estimated the increase in base aid per pupil contained in the freshman plan would generate about $700,000 annually for the district. That cash would come in handy for the Lawrence school board, which is considering up to $4 million in budget cuts. On Monday night, the board agreed to lay off 66 certified teachers, counselors and nurses.
"We've been looking for people to step forward to show this kind of courage," Weseman said.
He urged the 50 teachers, board members, administrators and members of the public at Cordley to lobby state legislators on behalf of the plan.
"My school district is in ruin," Weseman said. "It's time to rise up. Folks, if we don't go out there and start talking to people, they will continue to let us absorb this. We can't do it anymore."