In his introductory comments, Dahl, who also serves speaker pro tem of the Kansas House, used a chart to underscore the budget challenge. The chart indicated the state is obligated to spend $255.7 million this year simply because federal mandates and previous legislative appropriations.
Even if legislators agreed to increase state spending by only 5 percent from last year, he said that leaves a maximum of $76 million to use to as “discretionary funding.” Demands for those funds have already exceeded $341 million.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Dahl said.
Furthermore, the state’s responsibility for disaster-relief following ice storms this winter increased from an initial projection of $15 million to $50 million. The additional $35 million will have to come from the same pot.
Compounding the challenge is a slowdown in the state’s economy, which affects the amount of tax revenue generated to fund state government.
“Monies aren’t coming in as readily as they have in the past,” he said.
Referring to the biblical story of Joseph’s dream, Dahl said: “We need to follow Joseph’s example—we need to put stuff away when we have good times. But when we had good times, we didn’t. We kept spending.
“We’ve been fiscally irresponsible up there in Topeka,” he added.
Barnett, meanwhile, talked about his desire to have the Senate pass a multi-year funding program so school boards know how to budget from year to year. Toward the end, he is sponsoring a bill that would increase base aid by $59 per student for each of the two years following the third and final year of court-ordered financial increases for K-12 education.
In addition to education, Barnett also listed health-care, energy and immigration as policy high on his agenda.
The Emporia physician said the state needs to develop a health-care policy that will help reduce the estimated 300,000 Kansans who currently are not covered by health insurance, especially those “who are truly impoverished and will never be able to afford coverage.”
He said long-term cost controls must be part of the policy, as well as a program of “premium assistance” that includes federal, state and free-enterprise support.
“The answer here is not for the government to take over, but we have to find a way to control costs,” he said. “I believe we’ve wasted enough money in America to take care of all of the uninsured.”
In regard to energy, Barnett said he supports developing a policy that will enable the state and nation to reduce its dependence on oil produced by countries “that want to harm us.”
He said the current firestorm over the construction of coal-fired energy plants at Holcolm is only a narrow slice of the energy issue. The high-tech plants are necessary to give the state time to develop an energy policy that balances the needs “for cheap energy and a clean environment and safe future for the next generation.”
As for immigration, Barnett said he has co-sponsored a bill that would require employers to use “E-Verify,” a free program provided by the Department of Homeland Security, to assure the legal presence of potential employees.
“We have to make a decision: Are we a nation of laws, or are we a nation that ignores our law?” he said, adding that the lack of a clear plan has “created horrible situations” for illegal immigrants and their families.
Later, Dahl picked up on the energy issue, particularly in regard to the Holcomb project that recently was denied permits by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Dahl said the $3.6 billion project needs to move ahead if Kansas is going to be able to provide affordable energy to keep and recruit the businesses and industries the state so desperately needs to enhance its economy.
Dahl said South Carolina is already trying to woo 10,000 Cessna jobs away from Wichita—a trend that will continue if high energy costs force companies to consider more affordable locations.
Dahl said 85 percent of the power the new plants would produce will be sold to out-of-state consumers—not given away, as some critics have claimed.
He also spoke against the “shaky science” that exaggerates the causes and effect of global warming. Those who argue against the Holcomb project based on that science are in for a rude discovery.
“There are some folks on eastern side of the state who want to live in utopia,” he said. “They haven’t quite got down to reality yet. When (businesses) leave (the state) and they’re stuck with the bill, I think they’re going to realize the dire fiscal situation we’re in—and then it might be too late because these power plants do not get built overnight.”
At the end of Dahl’s and Barnett’s extended remarks, those in attendance addressed several issues, with energy attracting most of the attention.
Larry Paine, city administrator for Hillsboro, said the construction of coal-fired plants may be a necessary step to give the state and country more time to develop more efficient ways to tap into alternate energy sources.
Paine said if energy prices continue to rise, small towns like Hillsboro will not be be able to offer affordable energy to residents and potential businesses in the future.