Early on, Legislature faces challenges
As we approached the end of the second week of the 2013 legislative session, several bills have been referred to committees and will be coming to the floor soon. On Jan. 15, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered his state of the state address, and we heard his priorities for the session. Some of his initiatives are ambitious, such as amending the Constitution to change the way judges are selected. The Legislature is also facing the school finance decision that the Shawnee County court handed down. There can be no doubt now that the session ahead will be a challenging one.
The governor has called on the Legislature to cut income taxes further to eventually reach a zero state income tax. In committee recently, the governor's office proposed dropping the bottom bracket to 2.5 percent in 2014 and then to 1.9 percent in 2016. Dropping the top rate from 4.9 percent to 3.5 percent in 2017 was also proposed. Rather than expanding the government, the governor has asked any revenue that comes in above 4 percent be used to buy down the tax liability of Kansans. His plan retains the current sales tax rate and eliminates the state home mortgage deduction.
On Jan. 16, the governor presented his budget to the House Appropriations Committee. The governor is proposing a two-year budget rather than a normal one-year budget. By submitting a two-year budget, the governor is encouraging the 2013 Legislature to address the budget challenges for both FY14 and FY15. The budget protects base state aid per pupil (leaving it at its current level of $3,838), will protect essential services for Kansans in need, and will fully fund T-Works. Perhaps, most importantly, the budget would leave the state with the constitutionally mandated 7.5 percent ending balance.
In the past two years, the House has worked alongside the governor to return fiscal discipline to Kansas. Over that two-year period, the state has gone from having $876.05 in the bank and facing a projected $500 million shortfall, to last year having a $500 million ending balance. The House looks forward to working with the governor to make state government more effective and efficient.
On Jan. 11, in the case of Gannon v. State, a Shawnee County District Court ruled that the Legislature has not provided suitable funding for public schools. The court opined that in order for public schools to be adequately funded, the base state aid per pupil needs to be increased from $3,838 to $4,492, which equates to a $442 million increase in state education funding per year. It is estimated that, with the current funding formula and local option budget requirements, property taxes also could rise by approximately $154 million.
The governor has encouraged the Legislature to pass a resolution amending Article 6 of the Constitution to make it clear that it is the Legislature, not the courts, who will determine what constitutes "suitable provision" for funding public education. The fact that a court has taken upon itself to appropriate money is troubling. It was the intent of the Founders that those closest and most accountable to the people should be the ones determining how the public money is spent. The House agrees that ambiguity in law does not best serve the interests of the citizens of Kansas and will see how things develop during the session with regards to a constitutional clarification.
Another challenge of the governor is to increase the reading proficiency of fourth-graders. In 2011, the National Assessment for Educational Progress scores showed 29 percent of fourth-graders in Kansas read below the "basic" level and the National Center for Education Statistics states that 40 states are higher than Kansas on fourth-grade reading. The governor put forth a plan including a statewide retention policy for third-graders who are not at reading level and targeting funding for literacy intervention programs for young children. The House understands there needs to be a strong emphasis on results and these are some very positive results-based proposals.
Currently in Kansas, appellate court judges are selected through a process by which a commission, made up of members of the Kansas Bar Association, chooses three nominees of whom the governor then appoints one to fill a vacancy on the court. Kansas is the only state that gives such authority to its bar association in the judicial nomination process.
During his address, the governor called on the Legislature to reform the process of selecting appellate court judges to a more democratic model. He asked that a resolution be passed amending the constitution to this effect. The two suggestions he made in amending the constitution were mirroring the selection process after the federal model. The governor appoints and the Senate confirms, or by direct election. The House will work to achieve reasonable reform of the current model so that the process is accountable to Kansans.
Kansas currently has two agencies that deal with Kansas highways: the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Kansas Turnpike Authority. The governor also used his address to urge the Legislature to merge these two entities. He expects this to allow for greater efficiencies and to help in reducing the size of the state government. Such a merger would also bring greater accountability to agencies. Currently, having two highway departments nets a minimum of $14 million in duplicated services.
As a member of the Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee, I have heard testimony regarding the water issues throughout the state of Kansas and the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret in Logan County. In the Federal and State Affairs Committee, we have heard testimony from the Alcohol Beverage Container Division regarding alcohol beverage regulation and enforcement, alcohol beverage tax collections, concealed carry laws from the attorney general's office, and state lottery and gaming laws from the Kansas Lottery.
On Wednesday, Jan. 23, the House Rural Caucus met to discuss issues and legislation that pertains to the rural districts of the state.
The House Rural Caucus has approximately 50 legislators from the house, and I was elected by my peers to serve as the House Rural Caucus' vice chairman.
If you have thoughts on any issue which comes before the Legislature this year, do not hesitate to contact me. The best legislation involves a collaborative effort between the representative and the people. If there is anything I can help you with, please call (785) 296-7672 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Troy Waymaster, R-Luray, represents the 109th District in the Kansas House.