Local legislators get earful of funding requests; one lawmaker responds ‘please tell us what taxes you would like us to raise’

Sen. Tom Holland, left, D-Baldwin City, speaks to a Lawrence Chamber of Commerce audience during its annual Legislative Priorities Breakfast Friday. Also present from the Lawrence delegation are, from left: Rep, Barbara Ballard, Dem.; Sen. Marci Francisco, Dem.; Rep. Tom Sloan, Repub.; Rep. Eileen Horn, Dem.; and Rep. Boog Highberger, Dem.

Lawrence area lawmakers heard a long list of requests from area business, education and local government leaders Friday morning during the Lawrence chamber of commerce’s annual Legislative Priorities Breakfast.

That’s an event where officials from the city of Lawrence, Douglas County, the Lawrence school district, the University of Kansas and the Lawrence chamber all share their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and local lawmakers have a chance to respond to those issues.

The city of Lawrence called for restoring authority to local governments to determine their own affairs, something that outgoing Mayor Leslie Soden says state lawmakers have been gradually eroding.

“They sure have, and a lot of what they do is very unhelpful,” she said after the breakfast, citing a recently enacted property tax lid and a mandate to allow people to carry concealed firearms in public buildings as just two examples.

The city also called for expanding the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes.

The Douglas County Commission, meanwhile, called for criminal justice reforms to help ease the county’s jail overcrowding problem.

“This year we expect to spend nearly $1.5 million housing our inmates out-of-county,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said. “This outsourcing comes at great cost to the taxpayer, yes, but even greater cost to the inmate who is far away from their family, far away from their lawyer and absent from Douglas County’s re-entry services.”

Thellman said the county wants lawmakers to revisit a recently enacted law that expands the “speedy trial” time limit from 90 days to 150 days, something she said has contributed to overcrowding.

She also urged the delegation to resist any effort by the State Department of Corrections to solve its own prison overcrowding issue by housing state inmates in county jails.

“There is no room at the inn,” she said.

Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence school board, said the school district’s priorities are pretty much the same as they have been for several years, with full and adequate funding for public schools.

But this year, she said, the school board added a new item that is now its top priority: opposing any proposed constitutional amendment to remove current language requiring the Legislature to provide “suitable” funding for public schools.

“I really think that talk of such an amendment is a dodge,” she said. “It’s a dodge of the responsibility that the Legislature has, and it really does not merit our delegation’s consideration.”

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the current funding system does not meet that standard, saying current funding is both inadequate and inequitable, and it has threatened to close the public school system July 1 if lawmakers do not fix the problems this session.

The Lawrence chamber also listed education funding among its top priorities, both for public schools and higher education.

“The chamber supports restoration of the 4 percent cuts to higher education funding, and full funding of the career and technical education bill passed in 2012,” chamber board member Kristin Eldridge said.

The chamber also supported the city’s call for expanding the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes, and it urged lawmakers to protect and enhance the state’s current business development and workforce development programs.

Gov. Sam Brownback ordered cuts to higher education funding in August 2016 as part of an allotment cut needed to balance the state’s budget amid persistent revenue shortfalls. For KU, it amounted to a combined $10.7 million for the Lawrence and KU Medical Center campuses.

During the 2017 session, lawmakers were able to restore about $3 million of that. But Reggie Robinson, KU’s interim vice chancellor for public affairs, said restoring the remaining $7.7 million is the university’s top priority this year.

Members of the local delegation said they generally support those same priorities, but said many of them may be hard to accomplish in a year when the state’s budget is still tight, despite the large income tax increase lawmakers passed last year.

“We continue to have structural deficit issues with our budget,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate tax committee. “I do want to tip my hat to the Legislature last year that rescinded most of those Brownback-era tax cuts back in 2012. I am one who contended those did not go far enough. We still don’t have a balanced budget situation. We’re still running deficits.”

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he shared that concern.

“You heard from Sen. Holland that we’re still going to be revenue-challenged, and that’s true,” he said.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, went a step further by urging those who want to increase funding in any area of government to also propose ways of funding those initiatives.

“For those of you who are bringing forth projects that require additional funds, please tell us what taxes you’d like us to raise,” he said.

The 2018 legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 8. Both the House and Senate begin their sessions at 2 p.m. Gov. Sam Brownback will deliver his eighth, and final, State of the State address at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9.