2011 Session: Final Week

May 13th at 6:30AM marked the final day of the 2011 legislative session and, as expected, required a long night to finalize a budget compromise. The legislature adjourned early Friday morning after passing the 2012 fiscal year budget and approving a variety of other key public policy initiatives, which had lingered to the final days.

Budget
At the beginning of the session, it was clear that our primary focus would be balancing the state budget. The 2012 budget was a compromise and a test of will between the two chambers. The theory of checks and balances was put to the test and the governor became engaged when stalemates were on the horizon. Some did not vote for the budget because the cuts were too severe and did not provide funds for their favorite entity, and some voted against it because the cuts were not severe enough. The ending balance is to provide a “cushion” if revenues do not meet expectations. By statute we were to have a positive ending balance that is 7.5% of the $6 billion State General Fund Budget, so we should have around $450 million and we have $50 million - that is a thin cushion if you can call it a cushion at all. Without budget cuts, or increased revenue the only available solution left becomes “creative accounting” such as delayed tax refunds, or move up the date when property taxes are due. Remember a number of years ago when The Department of Revenue moved property tax day from June to May?

Upon our arrival in Topeka in January we were greeted with a $550 million budget deficit and a clear directive to take immediate action on key topics like voter identification requirements, tax reform, abortion law, KPERS funding, healthcare and school finance. Recognizing the volume of work needed to be accomplished in just 90 days, we rolled up our sleeves, went to work and:

  • Strengthened Voter ID requirements;
  • Approved fundamental tax reform allowing Kansas business to expense certain investments;
  • Passed legislation providing reductions to individual and corporate income tax rates when state revenues increase;
  • Modified existing law making late-term and partial birth abortions more difficult to obtain;
  • Defined “fetal pain” to prohibit abortions from being performed after 22 weeks;
  • Approved greater flexibility provisions allowing schools districts to use unencumbered funds to support classroom and teacher funding;
  • · Once again, passed the Health Care Freedom Act codifying the individual right of Kansans to choose to purchase or refuse to purchase health insurance;
  • Took a substantial first step in addressing the unfunded liability of the KPERS retirement system;
  • Reformed workers compensation regulations; and
  • Passed a budget that, for the first time since 1972, decreased all-funds state spending by nearly a billion dollars and turned a $500 million deficit into a $50 million surplus WITHOUT raising taxes.
Bills and Voting
This year in the Kansas House of Representatives 305 votes were recorded and again, I was present and voted each time and am documented in the House Journal with a 100% voting record for 2011. In total, 795 Bills and Resolutions in the House and Senate were introduced with 84 of those passed out of the Chambers to the Governor’s office. To date, Governor Brownback has signed 72 bills with 12 more to go. Two of those bills were signed in north central Kansas, HB 2003, renaming Highway #18 and the ROZ Zone tax bill which designated 50 Kansas counties to be able to offer five year Kansas Income Tax abatement (tax holiday) to move back to one of these counties which includes Cloud and Lincoln Counties in House District #107 and other surrounding counties in nearby districts. If the counties so choose, can offer a student loan payment to recent graduates up to $15,000 and this will be decided on a county-by-county basis. The Kansas Department of Commerce will be administering this new program and has had many calls of interest from across the nation from both businesses and individuals.

Friday, May 27th at 1:30PM will be the official sign unveiling by the Kansas Department of Transportation of the Donald K. Ross Memorial Highway signs located in Ottawa and Lincoln Counties on KS Highway #18. Captain Dan McCulley with the United States Navy will be the guest speaker at the intersection of US
Highway #81 and Kansas Highway #18, located about 10 miles north of Salina. A reception at Medal of Honor Recipient and local WWII hero Donald K. Ross will be held at the community center in his hometown of Beverly immediately following the ceremony. The public is invited to attend.

KPERS Reform (S. Sub. for HB 2194)
One of the most critical issues we faced upon arrival in Topeka this year was our chronically underfunded Kansas Public Employee Retirement System (KPERS). Currently, KPERS has an unfunded liability of $8 billion dollars. In terms of actuarial solvency, recent studies have shown Kansas to have the second worst state pension system in the United States, falling only behind Illinois. Pension programs nationwide have been hit hard but the stuttering economy has compounded our structural deficiencies within the system and will continue to do so unless substantive reform measures are taken to improve the stability of the pension fund. The Governor made it clear in his State of the State address this was one of his priorities in his first year. The House and Senate both passed legislation to begin the process of repairing the solvency of the KPERS retirement system. A conference committee met to negotiate the differences between the respective bills and came to an agreement that modifies the KPERS pension plan for current KPERS members and future public employees of the state, school and local groups. The agreement makes a variety of changes, contingent upon specific triggers including future action by the Legislature in 2012 and approval by the IRS for allowing tier I and II members the option of choosing alternative benefit and contribution options. The changes made to KPERS by this legislation will bring the state, school and local groups into balance by the 2019 fiscal year. First, the bill establishes a 13 member KPERS study commission to review alternative retirement plans and to report its recommendation by January 6, 2012. Those recommendations would be introduced in the House and Senate during the 2012 session. Second, the bill requires the legislature during the 2012 session to vote on each of the bills. Third, upon the legislature voting on the respective KPERS bills, the statutory state, school and local employer contribution rate caps of 0.6 percent would be increased for local employers to: 0.9 percent in FY 2014, 1.0 percent in FY 2015, 1.1 percent in FY 2016 and 1.2 percent in FY 2017.

Current KPERS plans are based on a worker’s salary and the years of service to the state. If revenues do not keep up with the payout of benefits, the state is required to make up the difference. This has been problematic for a number of years and is something the legislature has needed to address for quite some time. Our work on repairing the system is far from finished, but this is a productive first step. We will undoubtedly return to the issue next year with dedicated committees in both chambers picking up on work initiated here in 2011.

Off-session
Although the legislature has adjourned until January, please continue to let me know your thoughts on what issues are impacting you. If you are having trouble contact a state agency, please call me and allow me to help. I’m excited to return home and begin meeting with constituents! Reliable feedback is very important in making sure I accurately represent my friends and neighbors here in the district. Please feel free to call or email at elaine.bowers@house.ks.gov or elaine@concordiaautomart.com and I’d be happy to discuss any topic you are interested in. Thank you for the honor of serving you.

Representative Elaine Bowers
1326 N. 150th Rd.
Concordia, KS 66901
785 243-4256
785 243-3325 x2 office