Archive for Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The ‘t’ word

April 30, 2003

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Some may say they are being naive, but at least freshman members of the Kansas House are standing up for what they think is right.

In the current, politically charged atmosphere of the Kansas Legislature, it's good to see someone standing on principle.

On Tuesday, a group of freshman members of the Kansas House unveiled a budget proposal that does something no other budget plan floated this year has done. It dares to say that in order to maintain vital state services and prepare the state for a strong economic recovery, it is necessary to raise taxes.

The group of about 20 House members in their first terms began meeting about six weeks ago to discuss their frustration with budget proposals that were on the table. Even with the help of all sorts of financial sleight of hand, the proposals failed to adequately fund state services.

Republicans hold a large majority in the House and also outnumber Democrats in the freshman group by about 2-1. The freshman group includes two area legislators, Paul Davis and Tom Holland, both Democrats. The two, along with Democrat Sydney Carlin of Manhattan visited the Journal-World Tuesday to explain their plan.

The easy part of the group's negotiation, they said, was identifying the targets for additional funding. Key among those are: $50 per student added to the base state aid for public schools, $16.3 million to restore funding for the Higher Education Reform Act, $9.2 million for state employee health insurance, $21 million to reduce the number of clients on waiting lists for Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and $2 million for the state's judiciary.

Their plan calls for an ending balance in fiscal year 2004 of $168.4 million or 3.6 percent of the budget, compared with just $68 million in the budget plan proposed by GOP leaders in the Legislature.

The harder part was crafting a tax package that was acceptable to all the legislators in the coalition. They paid almost no attention to party divisions, the legislators said, but differing priorities in rural and urban areas demanded attention. The end result is a proposal whose major components are to raise the state sales tax by 0.5 percent and impose an income tax surcharge of 3.5 percent on all brackets to raise about $270 million in new revenue.

The three legislators who visited the J-W were fresh from a morning meeting with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who had told them she would neither oppose nor support their plan. They said she applauded their effort but said the state needed to do more to increase its efficiency before seeking any tax increases. The group has been promised the plan will receive "a fair hearing" in the House Taxation Committee, but more seasoned legislators already were expressing skepticism on Tuesday that the bill would progress.

Most budget proposals work their way from the top leadership down to the rank-and-file, Davis said, rather than taking the path the freshmen are attempting to blaze from the bottom up. They have received indications that many moderate Republicans are ready to support their plan and that support certainly will be needed if the freshman plan is to advance when the Legislature resumes today.

"We realize we don't have much political clout," Holland said, but the freshmen hope they can at least get the bill to the House floor to act as a catalyst for discussion of possible tax increases.

What are their chances of success? It's hard to tell, but the commitment of the freshman legislators to do what they believe is the right thing for Kansas is a refreshing change from the smoke-and-mirrors, politically motivated tactics of more veteran state officials.

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