2012 legislative session full of ups and downs

5/30/2012

The 2012 Legislature adjourned May 20 after 99 full days of contentious debate. This session proved particularly frustrating because the most important bills were left until the waning hours, including school funding, KPERS, Medicaid and the state budget, just to name a few.

In May, the governor signed a five-year, $3.7 billion tax plan approved earlier this session by the Legislature. I voted against this plan because, while it cuts income tax rates mostly for high-income tax filers and eliminates taxes on non-wage business income, it also repeals tax credits available to low-income families under current law, including the child care tax credit and homestead tax refund for renters. This plan passed on partisan politics and was not the best plan for Kansans.

This plan would decimate any surplus we now have and spiral into a $2.5 billion budget shortfall by 2018. To offset these costs, the state would have to cut nearly one-half of its state general fund, making it impossible to fund core functions of government such as education, disability waiting lists and mental health. Instead of shifting the tax burden to property and sales taxes for state revenue, we should create a fair and balanced tax system that benefits all Kansans. Property and sales taxes disadvantage those with fixed or low incomes.

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The Senate, in a bipartisan vote, approved a new cash-balance plan for future members of the state's KPERS retirement system, which covers employees at Fort Hays State University, North Central Kansas Technical College, teachers and workers at our state hospitals. Instead of shifting all of the risk and administrative costs to employees, this cash-balance plan shares risks between employers and employees and will shore up our unfunded actuarial liability. As it stands, KPERS faces an $8.7 billion gap between anticipated revenues and benefits promised. If long-term underfunding isn't addressed, more than 280,000 KPERS beneficiaries risk losing their retirement.

A cash-balance plan will reverse the trends of the past two decades and adequately fund our KPERS system so that hard-working state employees -- past and present -- can retire in dignity.

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Although most rural legislators joined me in the battle to retain our rural 36th district, the Legislature failed to pass a redistricting map that would protect each of Kansas' western Senate districts. As you might recall, every 10 years the Legislature is statutorily required to redraw each of the state's congressional, Senate, House and state board of education districts to reflect changes in population.

While many urban legislators favored a map that would collapse two western Kansas districts and send one to northeast Kansas, most rural legislators favored a map that would preserve each of the state's current 40 districts. Having failed to pass a map in the time allowed, the filing deadline for candidates has been postponed until June 11 and redistricting has been turned over to the courts.

I will continue to follow this process closely. If we are going to preserve the tradition and legacy of rural Kansas, it's vital that the state's redistricting plan acknowledge these needs and keep our representation.

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This spring, the Senate unanimously passed a bill I co-sponsored, requiring the continuation of a health insurance plan for a firefighter's spouse and dependent children, if that firefighter is killed in the line of duty. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, an average 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year. Twenty-two Kansas firefighters have been killed since 2000, most recently in January 2011.

As in the military, the family is part of the readiness and the sacrifice our firefighters make. I'm proud the state of Kansas has honored the valor and courage of those men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice by acknowledging the needs of their families during a crisis.

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After several hours of debate, the House and Senate approved a $14 billion state budget needed to keep vital state services open this fiscal year. I voted in favor of this bill, with some reservations.

I was pleased to see that the budget included full funding to the Children's Initiative Fund, which oversees a number of early learning programs; $40 million to begin restoring cuts to public education; nearly $2 million to reduce waiting lists for Kansans with disabilities; and reinstated the "under market" pay plan for some of the state's most underpaid employees, which legislators reneged on last year.

However, the state currently has a healthy $460 million ending balance. This revenue could have been used to provide more adequate funding to education (both higher and K-12), mental health, aging programs, developmental and physical disability programs, and to decrease the most onerous tax there is -- the local property tax. We fell short in those areas -- particularly property tax relief.

While this year's budget begins to reinvest in the programs we all value as Kansans, it did not go far enough. Next year, given a surplus, I hope we can do more for Kansans and rural Kansas needs.

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Nine months after his death, memorial signs have been placed along U.S. Highway 183 at the Interstate 70 interchange for Army CW2 Bryan J. Nichols, the Chinook pilot downed in Afghanistan, and all fallen veterans.

While no sign can truly commemorate the sacrifice Bryan and his family have made, my hope is that it will stand as a constant symbol and testimony to his service and it will remind all who pass through the heartland that the price of freedom belongs to us all but has been paid in full by veterans like Bryan.

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As we continue to address rural economic development, K-12 education funding, keeping our rural schools open, rural housing, senior care, lowering property taxes and a whole host of other issues, we cannot always depend on urban senators to have the same objectives we do. They have their own urban issues and the majority of votes.

My primary objective this session was to preserve that critical rural vote by saving the 36th Senate District.

Unfortunately, as this column is written, redistricting is before a panel of judges because the Senate and House couldn't agree on a nonpartisan Senate map before the session ended.

Whatever our district finally looks like, I will continue to stand up for rural needs and values that go beyond district lines. We have far too much to offer our citizens and the entire State of Kansas to take a backseat in decisions that are critical to maintaining our quality of life and shaping our future. Count me in for that cause.

Allen Schmidt, D-Hays, is state senator for the 36th District. allen.schmidt@senate.ks.gov

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