Sebelius tells Legislature to get to work

Governor beseeches lawmakers to roll up sleeves on tough issues

? As she prepares for the 2005 legislative session, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is urging lawmakers to get to work on school finance and defending her proposed cigarette tax increase to expand health insurance.

In an interview last week with the Journal-World, she also said she hoped the Legislature wouldn’t spend a lot of time working on a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

The two big issues before the Legislature when the session starts Jan. 10 are expected to be school funding and health care.

The Kansas Supreme Court announced it would rule Monday on a lower court decision that found the $2.7 billion school finance system unconstitutional because it shortchanges all students, especially minorities and those with disabilities.

Since the school funding lawsuit was filed on behalf of mid-sized school districts in 1999, Sebelius said the Legislature has been “missing in action.”

On health care, the governor has proposed a $50 million plan to expand state health insurance for low-income adults and children, and reduce administrative health care costs. She said she wanted to pay for the plan with a 50 cents-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes.

The tax increase has come under fire from Republicans, but Sebelius, a Democrat, defended her proposal, saying she has a good plan and a way to pay for it.

During the interview, she chastised the Republican-dominated Legislature for adopting in previous years major initiatives then failing to fund them.

“I guess I’m a little tougher about tying issues with a realistic discussion of what they cost and what choices we’re willing to make,” she said.

Here are Sebelius’ comments during the interview:

Question: When you were elected you were seen by most people as a bigger supporter of education than your opponent. Then you came in with a tax increase for education and it was rejected by the Legislature (during the last legislative session). What does that mean?

Answer: The voters who elected me weren’t the ones necessarily — they didn’t have a legislative vote. A number of legislators have stated aloud that they don’t intend to do anything until the Supreme Court rules. That seemed to be the hurdle last year. I’m hopeful their missing-in-action attitude will end once we get a ruling from the court. The Legislature was sued in 1999. Five years later, no progress has really been made in addressing any of the issues in the lawsuit that have now been backed up by a district court judge.

Having said that, the coalition that came together last year was somewhat remarkable, when you had both legislative leaders with strong majorities in the House and Senate saying we’re not even going to talk about school finance. But not only did we talk a lot about it, but I think we made some considerable progress identifying some appropriate funding streams and some frameworks which hopefully will be helpful once the court rules this year.

Question: Weren’t legislators who were out front on tax increases for schools punished at the polls?

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius talks to members of her staff at an early-morning meeting last fall. In an interview last week, Sebelius urged lawmakers to get busy solving the state's education funding, health care and other problems.

Answer: There were some in Republican primaries where that probably was one of the issues that was used as a contrast with their opponents. I’m not sure that that was the case across the board.

Nobody likes tax increases, nobody is enthusiastic about charging more for government services. Having said that, there are a lot of Kansas citizens who are getting increasingly frustrated by legislative inaction, and a number of parents who are enormously frustrated that the quality of schools that they have relied on in Kansas is being eroded. Hopefully, we will get a direction from the court and then be able to come to the table and figure out a solution.

Question: Does the anti-tax feeling bode ill for your health care proposal?

Answer: There really is a bit of disconnect between what I hear when I travel around the state and some of the discussions that take place inside the Statehouse.

Health care comes up on a regular basis, regardless of the audience — business owners, families, seniors, kids. I don’t think there is any question that if you look at the economic factors that are going to make a difference 10 or 15 years from now, we better get a handle on health care costs or employers and citizens are not going to be able to afford access to the system.

I’ve been working on this for 10 years, as insurance commissioner and two years as governor, and I’m confident we can do a lot at the state level. We have got to just stop waiting for some magic solution to come from inside the Beltway in D.C.

In my conversations with the Kiwanis club and the family down the street, what people want to know is that if we have more people insured, yes that makes sense, and the costs don’t get pushed around the system, but how are we going to pay for that? And so far there has been a very enthusiastic response to the notion that the cigarette tax is the most logical tie to rising health care costs.

Whether it’s John Jeter, who is the chief executive officer of the Hays Medical Center, who told me that three out of four of their hospital admissions are directly related to smoking-related illnesses. We also know that the cigarette tax is one of the few things that is proven effective in stopping more young people from smoking, so it kind of has a win-win.

So, I find that a lot of folks are skeptical about government leaders who have great ideas but wont’ tell you how they are going to pay for them. Which is why I think it is so important if we are talking about investment in the education future or health care, we talk realistically about what the cost is and what the potential is for payment of those costs.

Absent that, we go back to where the Legislature has been for years — I’ve got a grand idea, I’m going to pass it but we’re not going to fund it.

When I came in a couple of years ago, they passed the highway plan, but it had disappeared; they promised increases in higher education, that was off the table; the whole pension issue, we borrowed on the pension for a number of years. I guess I’m a little tougher about tying issues with a realistic discussion of what they cost and what choices we’re willing to make.

Question: On higher education, there was a recent audit that said professors’ salaries on average are going up more quickly than the cost of inflation and they are teaching less in classroom. Is that going to be problematic for higher education this session as far as getting funding increases?

Answer: It is really critical in the 21st century to have a better understanding throughout the citizenry of how important post 12th-grade education is to almost anybody who is going to be prosperous and be able to really provide for their family in the future. Because the kind of jobs available require different skills than 25 years ago. Having said that, I don’t know that that has translated very well. I do think that a lot of parents look at tuition costs that have jumped up and are questioning why that is occurring. A lot of kids are incurring bigger and bigger debt loads.

It’s probably very important to pull together a more coherent view of not only the role of higher education but how we are going to pay for it. States, not just Kansas, but all states, as the budget crunch came, a lot of higher education took a hit. We didn’t really cut a lot of money out of it, we just didn’t increase dollars to keep up with the percentage that had been formerly paid by the state.

Until we start seeing education as a continuum from early learning level through higher education, we’re still going to be pretty disconnected in terms of what kind of value people place on the college and vocation training system.

Question: Should higher education hitch its wagon to K through 12?

Answer: We can’t have a situation any longer, as it has been the case too often, where educators are fighting among themselves. If you take K-12 and higher ed we are really at 70, 75 percent of the budget. So there is already a pretty significant monetary commitment. Tough questions need to be asked: What is the value of that, if more money is being requested from the state are you going to lower tuition for kids, who is paying for what? Those questions are appropriate.

That kind of scrutiny is one of the reasons I felt so strongly about moving ahead with the audit on K through 12 school districts. Parents, taxpayers need to know where their money is going, and need to have a pretty transparent look at whether or not it is going into the classroom.

There is a disconnect in our teachers ranking 42nd in salary and us as a state contributing a significant share, more significant than many other states, of our state budget (to education). Where is the money going? If more of those resources can be streamlined out of the administrative level and put in the classroom we should do it.

Question: Why not just abolish the death penalty? The studies say it’s expensive, no one is getting executed. Would you support abolishing it?

Answer: The Supreme Court decision raises, I think, the whole spectrum of issues of costs and punishments, which I participated actively in during my legislative years, and was ultimately decided in 1994 when the majority of legislators decided to reinstate the death penalty.

What’s in place right now, which I think is a different scenario, is the sentence of life without possibility of parole. That’s good news for Kansas because there are definitely people who should never walk the streets again, and that really hasn’t been certain up until now.

So the focus can be, if you can really assure the safety of Kansans, do we want to spend the additional millions of dollars on guaranteed reviews and special treatment of capital inmates that are not granted to other inmates in the system? And if that is the case, to what extent should that be looked at?

Kansas has had a long history of being very cautious and putting in place a lot of the safeguards that are missing in many, many states. But I don’t think there is any question — the American Bar Association has called for a moratorium, states have imposed their own moratorium — so this is a debate that is coming at a time where it’s really a different situation than it was and we have a really different safety net in place than ever before (referring to the life without parole law).

Question: If the Legislature puts a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot, should it be in April, or November 2006?

Answer: That clearly will be the majority choice. If they want to vote on it, I’d say I’d like to get it up and out and not spend time in this session where I think we’re going to have lots of items that are going to have to take a lot of time and effort to take care of. Discuss it, look carefully at the ramifications, deal with it and move on.

Question: What are your plans for the economy and how are you going to work on the decline in the rural areas of the state?

Answer: One of the important facets of the economic strategy that was proposed, passed and signed into law last year is a recognition that this is a diverse state, and there are different kinds of investment opportunities and incentives for different regions of the state.

For the first time ever we had summits in seven different regions, and really the framework of the bill that passed through the Legislature came out of community and business leaders saying these are the opportunities in this region and area and these are our barriers.

That had really never been done before. It really informed the Department of Commerce, which is the key partner to business and community leaders, what is happening and what can we do at the state level to be better partners; what kind of barriers there are, what lacks in terms of investment capital and assistance.

So, I think in many ways we are much better positioned now than we have ever been at least in the last 20 years to look at rural initiatives and development with capital and new Center for Entrepreneurship, which is starting up, so that folks in small communities, help (them) find jobs with sort of one-stop assistance … and to really work with community leaders on what opportunities are out there.

Over and over again, I’m struck in talking with Kansans in rural areas, and it’s not just west of (U.S. Highway) 81, it can be in northern Kansas or southeast Kansas, is how important two issues are. What’s the school like in my community because a lot of Kansans see the quality of the school and having a school being one of the central issues about whether the town will survive. Take away the school and the town goes. And the other is health care, affordability and access. Those two elements may be as important as anything else we can do to revitalize and stabilize rural Kansas, is paying close attention to what is happening in the education system and what we are doing in terms of health care.

Question: In Arkansas City, a meatpacking plant lost 150 jobs because the federal government said they could not do what they wanted to do (Creekstone Farms Premium Beef had wanted to test cattle for mad cow disease in order to sell to Japan. Federal agriculture officials would not allow them to test). What are you doing about this?

Answer: I’ve been working closely with the Creekstone folks for months. They’ve pretty well told me when we had a meeting of beef producers that they were in a precarious situation and losing $150,000 a week and very frustrated in not being able to engage in selling beef to Japan and other markets.

So, we’ve continued to both pressure Washington and add our voices to the group that says “Just tell us what the rules are and we’ll meet them.”

There is good news in the choice of the new (U.S.) agriculture secretary, Gov. (Mike) Johanns from Nebraska, who clearly knows a lot about the Midwest and knows a lot about farms and was one of my allies when I put together governors from 10 beef producing states right after the first BSE announcement was made. He was a very strong advocate and somebody who felt we needed to work together to have Washington move a lot more quickly. I’m hopeful we can resolve this quickly, if and when he’s confirmed, and he will bring that kind of sensitivity to the table.

It’s unacceptable that a year after the market was shut we are still in some kind of negotiation with no end in sight. I think that has got to end and we want that market reopened. I’m committed, as I told the producers here, to doing anything I can, as soon as the market is reopened, to make sure that we can regain as quickly as possible our very advantageous position in the Japanese market.

We were selling about $200 million worth of beef a year (to Japan). A lot of that was based on prior relationships and kind of niche marketing of Kansas beef and if I can be helpful in making sure that we drive that very quickly as soon as the markets reopen, I’m ready, willing and able to do that.

Question: Is it the federal government’s fault or is it the Japanese fault?

Answer: I don’t know. There was a debate for a long time that if we held off for some time we would convince the Japanese to change their mindset about testing and about animal identification. What’s becoming more clear a year later is that is not going to happen anytime in the near future. Whether that’s because they got ahead of themselves or we were stubborn, but this is a huge economic issue, and our guys tell me just tell us what the rules are and we’ll meet the rules and let’s go. I think that’s the word really coming out of the state.