Tax program on legislative agenda

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Taxes already are on the minds of northwest Kansas legislators, even before they return to Topeka for Monday's opening gavel.

It's not yet clear, however, how the issue of taxes -- or rather a projected shortfall -- will be handled, or when.

For Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, there's some question when the Legislature should tackle the issue of correcting a tax reduction measure passed last year.

For Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, it's unclear if the fix will be made when several technical corrections are approved, or if it will wait until later.

Either way, it's a measure that's going to have to be fixed.

The overriding issue, Hineman said, will be to "try to figure out how to fill the hole that we've created."

Even if everything goes as proposed, he said, there will be a two-year lag in economic development catching up with the state's income needs.

Currently, the hole for fiscal year 2014 is expected to total approximately $300 million. Fiscal year 2015 might be even bigger, although the estimates are a bit hazier now.

"Do we cut budgets pretty severely, or do we find sources to fill the needs?" Hineman asked.

"Neither one of them is palatable," Hineman said. "So it's going to be tough."

Ostmeyer said the issue should perhaps be delayed until March or April, giving legislators the chance to see how tax collections are going.

He pointed to recent robust collections and signs the economy might be turning around.

"I think we need to be patient and see where the budget is heading," Ostmeyer said.

Ostmeyer and Hineman, along with Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, are the veterans of the northwest Kansas legislative contingent.

"The numbers still don't look good," Cassidy said of tax collections by the state. How to handle it remains uncertain.

Hineman voiced concern about shifting more of the tax burden on counties.

"As the mill levy rises, it just makes it much more difficult to attract business," he said, perhaps even forcing out some Main Street businesses. "And then it's a downward spiral."

They will be joined by a number of incoming freshmen, many of whom have received coveted committee appointments.

While all three agree the tax rate will dominate the session, there are other issues.

Cassidy pointed to the method used to appoint appeals court judges, a touchy issue simply because the Legislature is at odds with the judiciary.

That animosity stems from a prior school finance ruling and other decisions deemed too liberal by legislators.

"There are pros and cons on that one," Hineman said of giving more power to the governor to appoint judges. "I think we need to proceed cautiously."

Both Hineman and Ostmeyer said relations between the House and Senate, both controlled by conservative Republicans, should be vastly improved.

"That's going to grease the skids for a lot of potential legislation," Hineman said.

Ostmeyer hopes it provides a way to reduce the amount of time spent on bills that simply won't be going anywhere.

But he also hopes the conservative Republican majority won't serve as something of a bully pulpit.

"I think we need to be real careful we don't take too big of a step," Ostmeyer said.

He especially wants to make certain the legislative session doesn't drag on like last year when as many as 50 bills were taken up in the veto session. In all, nearly 300 new bills were passed last year.

"There's plenty of law on the books," Ostmeyer said. "We need to get done what we need to do and get out."