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SPOTLIGHT
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Topeka offers more questions than answers

Published on -6/3/2012, 7:14 AM

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The 2012 Legislature gave Kansans plenty of cause for hand-wringing, particularly with its inability to deliver election maps, a task handed off to federal judges, and passage of the Kansas Tax Act, which many fear will bankrupt the state.

While there's been plenty of policy analysis since the session, what has not been squarely addressed is the anxiety many Kansans now feel about the clarity of the Legislature's vision. The primary cause is uncertainty about the tax law's deep cut in the income tax, which supporters tout as an economic development tool that will propel the state toward prosperity.

A good number of nonpartisan analysts say it won't be so. For example, the Legislative Research Department estimates that the state could run up a $2.5 billion deficit. To fill the budget gap, the Kansas Economic Progress Council's executive director predicts "Kansas employment would have to grow 50 percent over the next six years. That's over five times faster than Texas job growth over the last decade."

To conclude that the Kansas Tax Act is conceptually sound, we must believe experts such as these can't do math.

As a result, for many Kansans watching the game from the stands, it looks like Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature have just thrown a Hail Mary pass to a hypothetical receiver. If the governor turns out to be wrong and an economic boon does not follow the income tax cut, local taxpayers will pick up the tab or suffer the consequences.

"We are scared to death," said Rick Doll, the Lawrence school superintendent. "The state could be running deficits within two years. If they start to run deficits, then the solution is to raise (property) taxes or cut school programs."

There is a growing concern, here amid the amber waves, that Kansas is facing peril without a Legislature that represents the state's interests. Exacerbating this unease were recent news reports that the governor had signed the anti-Sharia bill into law, which brought renewed scrutiny portraying the state as socially backward.

"You're right, Dorothy, there is absolutely no place like Kansas," one blogger wrote.

The law will prohibit courts and other entities from basing decisions on foreign law. Though the bill does not mention Sharia, the Islamic legal code, advocates made clear that Sharia law was a target.

Mind you, there is absolutely no threat that Sharia law will infiltrate our justice system, and Muslim organizations, which claim the law is racist, have promised to challenge its constitutionality. This guarantees more publicity portraying the state as retrograde.

Two observations are relevant here. First, the anti-Sharia vote was unanimous in the Kansas House and 33-3 in the Kansas Senate. Whether this represents true consensus doesn't matter. The Kansas Legislature is on record.

Second, a vote in favor of the bill required a complete suspension of critical judgment. Not only is this a law fixing a non-problem, but the arguments in support were contrived.

For example, Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, was quoted as saying, "They stone women to death in countries that have Sharia law," the implication being that a vote against the Kansas law was a vote for brutality against women. When these remarks were published, teachers of logic could clip a fresh example of both the straw-man and slippery-slope fallacies for use in the classroom.

Why couldn't Kansas lawmakers who saw the bill as problematic or unnecessary summon the political courage to reject such faulty arguments? Why couldn't lawmakers, who claim to want economic development, see that a law like this brands Kansas as a place to which many people wouldn't want to move?

The anti-Sharia issue is merely a symptom of a larger dysfunction in the Legislature, but it raises questions about the soundness of a legislative branch that also supported the Tax Act. Given the stakes, Kansans have reason to be nervous.

Gwyneth Mellinger is professor and chairwoman of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University.

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