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Getting Kansans back to work the priority

At the beginning of the 2012 legislative session, one of the governor's initiatives for Kansas focused on moving the economy forward.

With this in mind, House and Senate Democrat leaders early in the session offered an outline of Kansas Jobs First, which included solutions to protect Kansas workers, get Kansans back to work and move our economy forward. This package of bills would cost the state $11.1 million in fiscal year 2012 beginning July 1.

The Kansas Jobs First plan contained a number of individual bills. A few of the initiatives are discussed below and represent a good start in getting unemployed Kansans back in the work force.

The first solution was the Hire Kansans First Act. This plan aims to ensure state spending goes to companies that employ Kansans. If possible, Kansas dollars should not go to other states but stay in Kansas and pay Kansas workers. The act would require any contractor or subcontractor working on a state contract worth $100,000 or more annually to ensure that at least 70 percent of those employees working on the contract are Kansas residents.

The second solution was to accelerate the Kansas Department of Transportation initiative known as T-Works. The idea would fast-track at least $50 million worth of transportation projects that have been engineered but aren't scheduled until late 2012 and 2013. Accelerating these projects could create jobs earlier and save money by taking advantage of low prices on materials.

The Democrats also wanted to lower the investment threshold requirements for a casino in southeast Kansas and for slot machines at racetracks in Crawford, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties. And they wanted to use some gambling revenue for local infrastructure projects and to repair crumbling classrooms at Kansas Board of Regents institutions. However, the governor didn't want lawmakers to revisit expanded gambling during the session.

An incentive to get Kansans trained for the 21st Century jobs was another proposal. During the 2009-2010 school year, nearly 17,000 students were enrolled in one of our state's 13 credential, certificate or associate's degree technical education programs. These students apparently knew what studies have been telling us for years: that a technical education is directly linked to job placement and high wages. In fact, 95 percent of these career technical education graduates found work within two years while one-quarter reported earnings higher than the average worker holding a bachelor's degree.

This bill would target middle-class Kansans struggling to pay for needed job training by offering students enrolled in a post-secondary education course an individual income tax credit mirroring federal education tax credits. Students receiving the federal tax credit would also receive a credit equal to 10 percent of that amount on their Kansas income tax return.

Kansans should not be turned away from learning the kind of skills they need to find a good paying job because they can't afford to attend a technical college. This type of incentive will pay dividends as more Kansans obtain the education and skills they need to find a high-wage job and more companies will find Kansas as an attractive place to do business because of our well-trained workforce.

Unfortunately, this jobs package has been bogged down by many complicated issues before the Legislature. I feel getting our Kansas workers back on the payrolls is basic to moving the state's economy forward. As we are struggling to climb out of the recession, efforts should be concentrated on job creation and economic recovery.

Eber Phelps, D-Hays, represents the 111th House District.

eber.phelps@house.ks.gov