Douglas County legislators on Thursday said more state budget cuts will devastate essential services, and that taxes need to be raised.
“We are here at a very critical time in our state’s history,” said House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence. “We are really engaged in a great debate. Should we dismantle government, should government not take care of the disabled, the elderly, and should we have only minimal funding of schools and universities, or are the programs that people who came before us and built, worth keeping?”
But the legislators, appearing at a forum at the Dole Institute of Politics, disagreed on which taxes should be raised, and they all backed away from Gov. Mark Parkinson’s plan to increase the state sales tax by one cent for three years, saying the sales tax increase would hurt the poorest Kansans the most.
They praised Parkinson, a Democrat, for providing a budget plan when the 2010 legislative session started Monday, but they said other proposals should be considered, such as closing some sales tax exemptions, or delaying the phaseout of tax cuts already approved.
“Everything is on the table,” said state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence.
State Rep. Tom Sloan of Lawrence, and the only Republican who attended the forum, said “a lot of my Republican brethren do want to shrink government.”
But the legislators argued enough was cut in 2009, approximately $1 billion from a $6.4 billion budget.
Even with those cuts the state faces a $400 million revenue shortfall, but further cuts to bridge that gap would be a mistake, the lawmakers said.
“Now is not the time to dumb down the schools, throw Granny in the street, and open the prisons,” said state Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, whose district includes a small portion of Douglas County.
About 30 people attended the forum put on by the Lawrence branch of the American Association of University Women. State Sens. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and state Rep. Tony Brown, D-Baldwin City, also spoke at the event.
At this point, there is no majority support in the Legislature for a tax increase or significant budget cuts.
Earlier Thursday, Parkinson stood by his tax increase plan despite the bipartisan opposition. He has also proposed raising the cigarette tax by 55 cents per pack.
“The Legislature is just settling in, understanding the budget,” Parkinson said.
But Parkinson said once the “brutality” of further budget cuts is understood, then lawmakers will start considering tax increases.
He said the conventional wisdom is that you can’t pass a tax increase in an election year, but he added, “that is not accurate.” He said he believes the general public understands the magnitude of the state’s budget problems.
But legislative unease about a tax increase was evident in the Senate tax committee where Parkinson’s proposals couldn’t even get introduced before the panel. It was the first time in recent memory that an administration bill failed to get introduced.
Meanwhile, a plan announced by Republican leadership to put the Legislature on 10 days of unpaid furlough to cut costs has been put on hold.
The initial plan, which was to start today, would have held back legislative pay and subsistence for today, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, which is a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. And the GOP proposal would have held back pay for six more days during the 2010 session.
But apparently, the plan, announced earlier this week, may have to be run as legislation or a resolution or both, and require full votes of the Legislature. GOP leaders say they will work again on the issue next week.