CHANUTE — True to their nature, Kansas politicians couldn’t agree whether the outcome of the 2010 Legislative session was one of triumph or failure.
“All in all, it was a spectacular success,” said Rep. Julie Menghini, D-Pittsburg.
Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, however, gave the session a flunking grade. “On a scale of a one to 10, I’d give it a three,” he said.
TEN LEGISLATORS from southeast Kansas gathered Wednesday in Chanute for a legislative wrap-up hosted by Southeast Kansas, Inc., the regional economic development organization.
Of the 10, seven supported the 1-cent sales tax increase that will begin July 1.
“I don’t feel a bit bad to say I voted for the sales tax,” said Sen. Bob Marshall, R-Fort Scott. “There was no more to cut,” on top of the $1 billion slashed in last year’s budget.
As vice-chairman of the Transportation Committee, Marshall said the additional sales tax allowed passage of a 10-year transportation plan, which in turn ensures the continued success of Pittsburg State University.
Marshall reasoned that the enhanced corridor from Kansas City to Pittsburg via Highway 69, financed by a previous 10-year transportation package, led to a first-time lead in enrollment by Johnson County students over those of Pittsburg’s Crawford County.
“PSU is the biggest economic engine of the region,” Marshall said. Its current enrollment is near 7,000, up 2.5 percent over the previous year.
The transportation package will spend $8.2 billion over the next 10 years. Besides building better roads, the package will create badly needed jobs, said Rep. Richard Proehl, R-Parsons.
Proehl said more than 175,000 jobs will be created through the transportation program and that a specified amount will be spent in each county across the state.
Proehl said he supported both the budget and sales tax increase, which were “the best of some very bad choices.”
Menghini referred to the session as having “hurdles, which with the exception of gaming, still was the most productive year we could have had considering what we were facing.”
Kansas’ future seemed grim, Menghini said, including the 10 percent cut to Medicaid, an underfunded highway program, underfunded corrections system, which initially forced four prisons to close, and an underfunded school system, which would cause “thousands of teachers and classified staff to be laid off and create overcrowded classrooms.”
The 1 percent sales tax is in effect for three years. After that time, a .4 percent increase will remain in effect to fund the highway program. “Without this we couldn’t keep government funded,” Menghini said.
A gambling bill that would have benefited southeast Kansas came “too late” by the time it made it to the House floor, said Menghini. The bill would have allowed “racinos” — a combined racetrack and casino — including Camptown Greyhound Park in Frontenac, to keep a bigger share of slot machine revenues. Currently, owners are required to give 40 percent of slot revenues to the state. One proposed bill would have reduced that amount to 22 percent.
Next year, prospects for enhanced gaming look good, said Marshall. This year “we got it to the floor,” where it fell two votes short, he said.
Had the timing been different, by “even a day, we could have done it,” Marshall surmised, referring to a ploy by House Democrats from southeast Kansas to salvage the bill in exchange for endorsing a sales tax increase.
The “southern tier” of the state would benefit greatly from expanded gaming, Menghini said.
As a group, SEK, Inc., promoted a platform of expanded gaming and increased funding for transportation and education.
Rep. Bob Grant, D-Cherokee, said his vote for the sales tax “was what we had to do, and what we did was right.” The vote “protected our schools and our future — which is our kids and their kids,” Grant said.
“If we back away from education, we’re not honoring ourselves or our children. We’re not giving them the opportunity to compete on a worldwide basis,” Grant said.
Rep. Bill Otto, R-Le Roy, said he voted for the sales tax primarily to restore the 10 percent in cuts made to Medicaid and to adequately fund education.
Otto said he feared several nursing homes in his Ninth District would have closed if the Medicaid cuts had been extended.
“What do you do with the people? Bring in the National Guard to take care of them?” he asked rhetorically.
“There are things government has to do that nobody else will assume,” he said of restoring the funding.
As for education, Otto said he would have preferred another means of funding it. Otto had promoted a bill that would have put school districts on more equal footing through an “equalization” plan.
Otto said he fears the Legislature is leaning toward going back to making school districts pay for themselves through local property taxes, “which is fine for a Burlington or Johnson County,” he said of the wealthy communities.
Otto referred to the way the House operates as a “dictatorship,” led by a House Speaker who effectively “shuts down” any opposition, “including mine.”
Otto said he could not vote for the state budget, which “was poisoned” by Rep. Bill Feuerborn, D-Garnett, and his call to pay for continued renovations to the state capitol, which Otto said were excessive.
THOSE OPPOSED to the sales tax increase at Wednesday’s luncheon were Rep. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, Shirley Palmer, R-Fort Scott and Peck.
Peck said the tax increase and passage of the $13.7 billion budget “takes money out of the pockets of taxpayers and into state government.
“I believe that Kansas taxpayers know how to spend money better than the state government,” he said.
Peck bemoaned a spendthrift attitude among legislators.
“Even during the worst recession since the Great Depression, spending was up 3.8 percent,” he said. “This is not good for Kansas.”
Peck said he had promoted selling “state assets” to help balance the budget and mentioned derelict rest areas whose property could be sold.
Rep. Knox accused the state government of being socialist, a term he refers to as “statism,” and assuming too much control over the private individual.
“We don’t need government to help us,” he said. “We need to let the economy break loose and grow. Government is a heavy load on the economy.”
While the 10-year transportation bill may help “certain sectors, it will hurt other sectors,” Knox said, without explaining further.
“Money isn’t the answer,” Knox said regarding education. Rather, it’s the lack of discipline these days and all the restrictions by government agencies such as Social and Rehabilitation Services on how kids can be disciplined.
Rep. Palmer said she voted against the tax increase to represent the wishes of her constituents of Bourbon and Linn counties.
In her role with the transportation committee, Palmer said she took pride in working on the ban of texting while driving and also the law that makes it mandatory to wear a seat belt. Both take effect July 1.