At the Hoisington legislative coffee Saturday morning, Rep. John Edmonds, Rep. Troy Waymaster, and Sen. Mitch Holmes talked on issues and actions of note in their respective houses before opening up the floor to questions.
Edmonds began by addressing the Feb. 11 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court demanding that the issue of equity in relation to the Gannon decision be fixed by June 30, or they will close the schools. It determined students in some counties of the state, due to the differences in what a mill brings from property tax, are not treated fairly compared to those in other counties.
“Some people believe they are bluffing, I don’t. I think they are serious as a heart attack about that,” he said.
The court has given some indications about what they would like to see happen about that, but nothing has been said as far as precise amounts.
Calling it “the 800-lb. Gorilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about,” Edmonds said this one issue is driving every other issue. Both Waymaster and Holmes agreed.
The House of Representatives is considering $37 to $50 million in new money, with no idea of where it will come from. That bill has now been tabled, but there is the expectation that a new one will be put together.
There is a Senate bill which purports to deal with the Gannon issue by rearranging money already in the budget, he said. The legislature reconvenes on Monday, and has until the end of the week to work on a solution before first adjournment.
“The chances of either option passing both House and Senate and being approved by the Governor before that times are fastly approaching nill,” he said.
Agreeing there was nothing more he could add about school finance, Holmes opted to bring the gathering up on other issues.
“Sometimes budget issues can get kind of bogged down and boring, so I’ll try to bring in a little bit of spice here,” he said.
This week there has been particularly heated debate on a resolution dealing with the President Barrack Obama’s wish to bring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth. This resolution has now passed with overwhelming support in both houses, and contains strong opinions of how Kansans feel about what the president is hoping to do.
Waymaster added, the primary concern has to do with questions of how the courts will treat these prisoners once on U.S. soil. Currently, they are treated as prisoners of war not subject to U.S. Constitutional rights. If they are brought into the country, the courts may choose to extend these rights to them.
Holmes also spoke on a constitutional resolution which has passed both houses and will be voted on by Kansans in November. It will make the right to hunt, fish and trap a constitutional right in Kansas. He read the resolution as it will be worded:
“The people have the right to hunt, fish and trap, including by the use of traditional methods subject to laws and regulations that promote wildlife conservation and management and that preserve the future of hunting and fishing. Public hunting and fishing shall be a means of preferred controlling wildlife.”
He added, there is verbiage in the amendment this shall not be construed to modify any provision of law relating to trespass property rights and water resources. This, he said, was to protect farmers in particular from random hunters and fishermen entering their land without express permission.
He also shared about changes to the state’s STAR bond rules, meant to eliminate abuses. One county has been singled because of its liberal application of the bonds, and now a legitimate regional attraction is at risk.
SB 477 is a bill he is deeply involved in, creating a legislative oversight committee for state psychiatric hospitals.
“The heart of the matter there seems to be morale,” he said. “We need to get that turned around.”
Holmes said he’s also coming around to the idea of increasing transparency by getting video cameras into all committee rooms. While he still feels people may play to the cameras, and he seeks to avoid that, he is in favor of audio recording. He has personally seen the benefits of this during a committee hearing he chaired last year. Constituents who listened commented that he had conducted himself in a fair and balanced manner. This was helpful, he said, because later reports from special interest groups reported otherwise.
Waymaster covers a large district. While he does not represent the City of Hoisington, he does represents a large portion of Barton county, including all to the east, north and west of the city. His largest city here is Claflin. Also Osborn, Smith and Russell Counties in their entirety and portions of Jewell, Lincoln and Rush counties.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he has been working diligently on increasing efficiency in the state’s budget. Last year, they spent nearly $3 million to have a private auditing firm, Alvarez and Marsal, to come in and help determine ways to do that. In January, the firm came back with 105 recommendations that over a five year period could save $2 billion.
They broke out the recommendations among the various committees, and hearings have been taking place. There is a great deal of resistance to the recommendations, however. State agencies are reluctant to change, he said. Also, implementation of some of the recommendations will be somewhat difficult. He is hopeful that enough of the recommendations will lead to savings for the state.
Auditors noted the State of Kansas is very good at paying bills within 10 days, he said. One recommendation is to go to a net 30 payment policy, where the state would pay in 30 days. This would provide $170 million in cash flow for the state. Another related recommendation is to then negotiate with vendors, and see if they will provide discounts if payment is made within 10 days. There is resistance to this, and it was noted that while the bulk of bills are paid within 10 days, there are many that are past due by 60 to 90 days.
HB2721 would create three oversight committee to oversee all the states boards in three areas, the public health industry, financial industry and general industry. Several, it is thought, could be combined and save the state money. Boards, however, resisted the idea of merging. Also, implementation was unclear.
He also touched on the first half of the Gannon issue. He agreed, it would be a mistake to call the Supreme Court’s bluff, because this is only the first half of the problem. There is no telling what the court might do when it comes to the adequacy half of the issue, he said.
Finally, the other big issue is determining what exactly the budget is going to be with revenue shortfalls becoming progressively worse each month this year. He touched on the estimates for revenue based off the price of oil, which have been consistently off for months. In connection with this, he praised Alvarez and Marsal for suggesting the revenue estimate committee include industry leaders.
“The committee figured that if the price of gas was down, that would mean more money in the pockets of people to spend, but in my district, when the price of gas is down, people aren’t spending,” he said. “Having an industry professional from the Kansas Oil and Gas Commission on that committee who has insight into that business would be far better than having some economist from KU or K-State.”
The floor was then opened to questions, and constituents spoke with all three about concerns over balancing the state budget, resuming taxation of business income for various small businesses, bills concerning schools and local associations funding, Medicaid, proceeds from the Kansas State Lottery and other gambling related taxes, and more. Finally, after two hours, the coffee was adjourned because the space had been reserved for another use.