House Happenings Week 1

The 2012 legislative session officially began this week, as usual, with abundant energy and enthusiasm for what lies ahead. Our agenda is quickly filling up. Issues like strengthening the state’s economy, education finance reform, immigration, Medicaid reform, KPERS, redistricting, tax reform and further balancing the budget are already taking precedence on the agenda. Early on, most of our time will be spent in committee reviewing policies remaining from the 2011 session, learning of new proposals and beginning the process of determining which legislation will be the primary focus of the session. After a week or two, bills will begin passing out of committee and voting will commence shortly thereafter. I will continue to serve on the Agricultural and Natural Resource Committee, Federal and State Affairs and Vice-chair of Social Service Budget. As the session progresses, activity will transition from the committee level to floor debates and final votes. Throughout this process I will continue to keep you updated as we work together to represent our shared interests.
On Wednesday, Governor Brownback appeared before a joint session of the Legislature to give his annual State of the State address. I was honored to have Johnnie Goddard, my Minneapolis High School classmate now the Kansas Deputy Corrections Secretary, join me as one of my guests in the balcony. It was also my pleasure to host USD#224 Clyde-Clifton Government teacher Ken McClanahan and his wife Joyce from Clyde as my guests as well. Governor Brownback and Ken were classmates from an early age in Parker, Kansas and all three were able to meet the Governor after his address.
During his annual speech, the Governor laid out his agenda to the Legislature. Governor Brownback’s main priority is to overhaul the state tax code to make it simple, flat and fair. Key to the overhaul is lowering individual income taxes for all Kansans by going from three to two income tax brackets, reducing the highest tax rate from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent and lowering the bottom tax bracket to 3 percent. Low-income Kansans will see increased benefits through the doubling of the standard deduction for head of household filers (from $4,500 to $9,000) and an additional investment of $60 million to state social services and healthcare programs. Currently, Kansas has the second highest tax rate in the region behind Nebraska with migration data showing we are consistently losing workers to nearby states with lower tax rates. From 2001 to 2010 private sector employment in Kansas fell by 39,700 jobs. Between 2004 and 2010, Kansas lost 15,683 tax filers and 17,640 dependents costing the state $1.09 billion.

State Budget
Last year, the Legislature 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 $100 million surplus without raising taxes. Since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to have a number of good months and revenues are finally headed in the right direction. History shows revenues will remain erratic as the economy struggles and we must pay off state debt and spend conservatively to better stabilize the budget and avoid some of the major shortfalls we were forced to deal with in recent years. To continue building on the progress made in 2011, Governor Brownback has introduced a budget for FY 2013 that provides a $465 million ending balance, exceeding the 7.5 percent statutory requirement for the first time since 2008. The Governor’s budget fully funds or increases funding for essential state services while decreasing State General Fund (SGF) expenditures from the previous fiscal year.

For several years the Legislature has failed to ensure funding for KPERS. The current unfunded liability of KPERS exceeds $8 billion, which ranks it as one of the worst pension systems in the United States. In response, Governor Brownback has endorsed the bipartisan KPERS study commission plan to transition from KPERS to a defined contribution plan. Individuals who currently receive KPERS benefits and those who are vested will remain in the system and receive full protection while unvested workers and new state employees will transition to a defined contribution plan.

In two short years, federal funding to Kansas has fallen by $1.5 billion – a majority in Medicaid dollars. At the same time, Medicaid funding demands have increased at a rapid rate, placing stress on education, public safety and other essential state services. Additional federal cuts are expected, so the need to implement massive Medicaid reform in Kansas is now. The administration’s plan proposes to transition Kansas Medicaid to a managed care system that offers Kansans the opportunity to choose a plan that suits them best; encourages the disabled to find meaningful employment; and consolidates the Medicaid program into one state agency. The administration projects the overhaul will result in total savings of $853 million, though these savings would not be fully realized until the plan is completely implemented in future years.

School Finance
Governor Brownback introduced a new school funding formula intended to send dollars to classrooms, not courtrooms; focus resources on classroom instruction; and allow for greater flexibility and local control to school districts. Protecting classroom funding has long been a priority of the House. While the ultimate school finance solution will take time, patience and compromise, the Governor has provided the legislature with a realistic starting point for discussion. The plan is designed to provide stable, predictable, and fair funding to all of Kansas’ 286 school districts. It would provide the statutory $4,492 base state aid per pupil amount and no district would receive less money under the proposal and approximately half would receive additional amounts.

Water Policy Changes
Kansas water policy has become one of the main focuses of the 2012 legislative session and the executive branch priorities. Accordingly, the House will be considering a number of changes to existing law designed to help sustain one of our most precious and declining resources. House Bill 2451 has been introduced to update the state’s water policy that incentivizes the conservation. Of particular concern is the current “use it or lose it” state water law concept, which in some cases, disincentivizes water conservation efforts. Currently, water rights holders are given an allocation of water to use if this allocation is not completely used the individual stands to lose their water rights. The policy put forward by the administration would not force the water to be used and prevents water rights from being taken away. Actual water savings are hard to determine but the conservation impact is expected to be substantial.

I hope you take the time to track the Legislature’s work in Topeka over the course of the 2012 session. Although early, policy proposals on the above issues, and many others, are quickly forming and I believe it is an important part of the process to keep my constituents updated. As you know, the devil is in the details and many components of these policies are subject to change. Feedback from all angles is a critical part of this process, so I encourage you to involve yourself in the process and express your views; let me know your thoughts on the issues discussed by the legislature and others which might be affecting you. Please feel free to call or e-mail and I’d be happy to discuss any topic you are interested in. Thank you for the honor of serving you!

Rep. Elaine Bowers
Kansas State Capitol Building
300 SW 10th St.
Room 54-S
Topeka, KS 66612