Archive for Sunday, August 24, 2003

Freshman legislators ready for school fight, part II

August 24, 2003


— In the 2003 legislative session, they were knocked down as they fought to pass a tax increase to fund schools and frustrated, they say, by a state government more interested in gimmickry and political expediency than solving the state's problems.

But those in a bipartisan group of 18 freshman House members say they aren't discouraged. In fact, they're eager to climb back into the legislative ring and start swinging.

"It was a great experience," state Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, said of the session. "What we have done is get the issue (tax increase) out on the table."

Holland defeated a Republican incumbent to gain office, then helped engineer a charge by the freshmen to increase taxes to save funding for education and social services.

The measure was soundly defeated by a vote of 83-41. Even some legislators who publicly expressed admiration for the newcomers' efforts voted against the measure.

Despite their loss, freshmen interviewed recently said they had no regrets. In fact, they predict school funding will be improved in the legislative session that begins in January -- now that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has reversed field and said she was open to discussing a tax increase.

"The governor seems to be coming in our direction," said Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, another leader of the group. " I'm really pleased to hear that. The bottom line is if we are going to do something for public education, it is most likely going to require a tax increase. She is coming to that realization."

A new crop

The old adage that freshman legislators should keep a low profile during their first session did not apply to the class that came in for the 2003 session.

Many of them had previous political experience, having served on school boards, city commissions or as legislative staffers. And many had been elected on a pro-public school message over more conservative members who had consistently opposed increased funding to schools.

But as the session progressed, it became clear that neither Sebelius, a Democrat, nor Republican legislative leaders would consider a tax increase for schools. Instead, facing a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, they opted to cut funds to cities and counties and put in place a series of accounting changes and payment delays to bridge the gap.

Sebelius, just elected, said she wanted more time to find cost savings in state government. Republican leaders said a tax increase during a recession would further slow the economy.

But critics called their budget plans "smoke and mirrors" that simply pushed many of the problems into the future.

Said Rep. Rob Boyer, R-Olathe, another newcomer, "The initiative by the freshmen was in response to what appeared to be a lack of solutions to the problem.

"From where we were coming from, you either raise taxes or cut expenses, but you don't gimmick your way out of it."

In that atmosphere, the frustrated freshmen met several times and crafted a proposal to increase the state sales tax from 5.3 cents per dollar to 5.8 cents and apply an income tax surcharge of 3.5 percent. The $250 million tax increase would go toward a three-year increase in school funding and to alleviate waiting lists for social services for low-income Kansans.

Easily shot down

The proposal was trotted out May 1, during the last week of the session and after a couple of hours of debate was shot down.

While 18 newly elected freshmen voted for the proposal and got most of the publicity, 13 freshmen voted against it to hold the line on state taxes.

Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, was one of the freshmen opposed to the tax bill.

"At a time of economic uncertainty, increasing taxes is the worst thing you can do," he said.

While they would have preferred a victory, the group of freshmen who supported the tax increase said they learned a few important lessons.

Davis, who had observed the Legislature up close as a lobbyist and state employee, said he learned that the governor, Senate president and House speaker control the agenda.

"If anything, I was surprised by how difficult it is to get things done sometimes," he said. "The other thing I really learned was the awesome power that the governor and legislative leadership have.

"I learned that in the context of our freshmen proposal that we put together. It was a bottom-up process, and things usually get done in a top-down process. They can really use the power of their positions to get things done."

Changes needed

Holland praised House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, for setting a respectful tone in the chamber but said there were legislative procedures he would like to change. Holland said many lawmakers depended on legislative leaders who told them to vote for a last-minute bill that changed the way sales taxes are collected. The new law has since caused an uproar among businesses.

Holland also said the Legislature shouldn't work into the early-morning hours, as is often the case at the end of the session, and be forced to vote on measures that were put in at the last moment without having had a proper hearing.

But overall, the freshmen said they had no misgivings about serving in the Legislature. And they don't care if their support for a tax increase comes back to haunt them in the 2004 elections.

"It's not dangerous to do what you think is right," Boyer said. "Who wants to be a politician who wants to be the most popular all the time?"

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