Legislature wrestles with spending priorities
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Topeka ? Expect big fights over energy, health care, education and immigration when the 2008 legislative session starts Monday.
And expect lots of “postcard” votes, aimed at making lawmakers look good or bad on the campaign trail.
But aside from the political spectacle, the life and death struggles of thousands of Kansans will be waged in the minutiae of crafting a budget for state government.
Why are there 1,352 low-income Kansans with developmental disabilities on a waiting list for home- and community-based services?
Why does Medicaid reimburse agencies less than a third of the cost to provide some assistance to destitute senior citizens?
Why are county jails increasingly used to incarcerate people with mental illness?
Meanwhile, political pressure increases each year to cut taxes and keep spending down.
Add to that the spending priorities that lawmakers have built into the budget for years into the future, and you have a tough situation.
After making presession rounds, talking to groups and listening to others, state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who is Douglas County’s most veteran legislator, stated, “When you are short on money, you have to look at where is the greatest need right now, and what do we need to do now.”
All Douglas County lawmakers agreed the Legislature faces a difficult task in sorting out numerous spending priorities.
“We’re looking at several years in a row that will be difficult,” said state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence.
Years of tax cuts, mostly for businesses, and spending increases, especially court-ordered dollars for public schools, have taken lawmakers to this situation.
A solid economy helped grow state coffers to the point where the Legislature could borrow from its balances to bankroll the current fiscal year budget.
“We are spending more this fiscal year than we are taking in,” said Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ budget director, Duane Goossen. “You can’t keep that up forever,” he said.
“Last session was a feel-good session,” said state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “We were able to reduce taxes and spend money. We’re not going to be able to do that this session or probably for the next several years.”
“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” said state Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence. “We’ve done some things to respond to our responsibilities (school funding) : . By doing so, there are other obligations that are going to be difficult to meet.”
State Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said the Legislature will have to make tough choices.
“I don’t see all the needs being met this year. We don’t have the revenues,” he said.
But state Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said the Legislature should resist setting an artificial limit on spending, which has been espoused by some groups. Many of the proposed funding increases in social services, Francisco said, will save money in the long run by keeping elderly people out of nursing homes and helping Kansans with disabilities keep their jobs.
“I’m hoping that we don’t establish a cap but instead really look to the future and say what are the best investments we can make in our children, in our citizens,” she said.
Douglas County lawmakers generally are seen as being at the forefront of pushing for funds for social services and education.
But in meetings this week, Lawrence legislators repeatedly told social service advocates that they need to join forces with advocates in other parts of the state so that those folks could lobby their representatives for increased services, too.
“They need to understand that, across the state, their peers have to be talking to their legislators, and the governor sets the tone for the budget, so a lot of this has to be worked out with agencies and her staff ahead of time,” Sloan said.
That being said, here are a number of issues that also will confront the Legislature:
Last year, Sebelius called on the Legislature to march toward providing health care for all Kansans. One year later, the Kansas Health Policy Authority has produced a package of recommendations that supporters say encourages better health and personal responsibility, makes insurance more affordable for low-income Kansans and makes the system more efficient. Currently, 300,000 Kansans have no insurance, and the major obstacle is the cost, experts say.
Sebelius, a Democrat, several key Republicans and dozens of health organizations back the proposal. But the big-ticket item – a 50-cent per pack increase in the state cigarette tax – has an iffy chance, at best, of gaining the Legislature’s approval.
The Sebelius administration pleased environmentalists but sparked the fury of western Kansas legislators when it rejected a permit for two coal-fired electric power plants near Holcomb, citing concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.
Sebelius has been pushing wind energy, but legislative leaders such as House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, want the coal-burning plants. Democrats also are getting pressure from labor unions on the issue because of jobs associated with the plants.
Denial of the permit has been appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, but the earlier decision is expected to hover over many other issues during the session.
Lawrence legislators have also said they expect the issue to affect their ability to get things done during the session because the Lawrence City Commission officially opposed the plants.
Several lawmakers have vowed to push for measures that they said will reduce illegal immigration to Kansas. And that includes an attempt to repeal a 2004 Kansas law that allows the children of some undocumented workers to pay the same in-state tuition rates as legal Kansans at state universities, community colleges and vocational schools. Under the law, the student must have lived in Kansas at least three years, graduated from a Kansas high school, and seek or promise to seek legal status.
Another proposal would punish employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
The Kansas Board of Regents has called for a $150.5 million, or 18.1 percent funding increase for higher education.
Much of the increase would go toward the continuing problem of maintaining and repairing facilities, while $20.1 million would be set aside for programs that address state priorities, such as increasing the number of nurses and teachers.
Teacher training and retention and phasing in full-day kindergarten are the focus of proposals to increase school funding.
Schools are scheduled to get a $122 million funding increase for the 2008-09 school year in the final installment of a three-year finance package that the Legislature approved in response to a Kansas Supreme Court order.
But many key officials want to “lock in” another funding increase for the 2009-10 school year. The amount of that increase will be hotly contested.
Last year, the Legislature approved casino gambling. Since then, 13 applications have been submitted to build four big-time casinos in the state.
But the constitutionality of the new law has been challenged and is expected to go to the Kansas Supreme Court.
A lawmaker who tried and failed to stop Lawrence from enacting a domestic partnership registry has vowed to try again.
State Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said he thinks the registry violates a constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2005 that recognizes marriage as only between one man and one woman.
Family advocacy groups are calling for restrictions on “predatory lending practices.” They say the state needs to do more to regulate payday loans and car title loans, which have increased significantly in recent years.
“Predatory lending practices threaten the prosperity of Kansas families by diverting family resources away from basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter,” said Kansas Action for Children.