Legislators say Kansas at crossroads for its economic future

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The Kansas economy is withering where it should be growing and growing where it should be withering.

That was the assessment offered by State Rep. Don Dahl and State Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Jim Barnett at the legislative coffee sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce Saturday at city hall.

About 22 people showed up to hear the two Republican lawmakers describe how the state is lagging behind in private-sector job growth while the state government payroll and debt grow at an unprecedented rate.

“We are now facing a crossroads in Kansas-a crisis, you might say-in keeping business in Kansas,” said Dahl, who distributed fact sheets to underline his contention that the tax climate in the state is discouraging new businesses from coming in and prompting existing businesses to leave.

“Once business leaves, it’s gone,” he added. “It’s not coming back.”

Dahl blamed “Topeka” for the problems, quoting an adage from former President Ronald Reagan: “If it moves, tax it; if it continues to move, regulate it; and then, if it ceases to move, subsidize it.”

“I think that’s the problem we have to a great extent in government,” he added. “Tax, tax, tax-and then once we’ve killed it by regulation and taxing, then we say, ‘Oh we needed it, let’s subsidize it.'”

Gubernatorial aspirations

Barnett echoed several of Dahl’s themes and brought charts and graphs of his own to illustrate his points.

“Something has been growing in our state,” he said. “It’s debt. Kansas has a proud tradition of being a low-debt state…. But our red ink is growing. It started growing a lot faster in the late ’90s, and now is growing exponentially.

“We’ve been spending money we don’t have right now and we’ve been doing this quite a while in Topeka.”

Barnett, a physician from Emporia, called the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision to mandate significant funding increases in the state’s budget for public schools “wrong,” and the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative to have 100 percent proficiency among students by 2014 “an unachievable goal.”

“We spent an additional $300 million last year in one year alone -a 10 percent increase,” Barnett said about school funding. “Now, by court decree, we need to spend much more than that.

“This next year, we’ll need to increase school funding by a little under $500 million. The next year, it’s another $600 million. The next year, it’s another $800 million and the next year it’s over $1 billion.

“By fiscal year 2008 (the state budget) will be $738 million in the hole. By 2011, the fourth year, we’ll be $2.3 billion in the hole. How can we afford that when we’re already falling behind other states? Businesses are not coming here now-or are leaving-because of high taxes.”

Barnett used the local public forum to outline his strategy if he were to be elected governor.

He said his first step would be to freeze the state budget “until we grow again” while protecting school funding, the frail and elderly and higher education.

“The state needs to live like families have to live when they don’t have enough money-they tighten their belts,” he said.

In regard to school financing, Barnett said he has already introduced a bill-the only one proposed so far this session-that would phase in a $400 million increase over four years.

“It’s money we can afford,” he said. “It puts money to special-needs students-special education, bilingual and at-risk (students). But most of the money goes to the base rate per pupil. My proposal protects small schools-and you all should very interested in that in this county.”

He said another component of his plan would be to plot the state’s fiscal future four years ahead of the curve.

“We don’t do that very well in Topeka,” he said.

In regard to taxation, Barnett said he would move to eliminate the Kansas’s estate tax, increase the tax deduction for dependents to $500 and reduce the state’s income tax rate.

He said such moves would keep private and business capital in Kansas that is otherwise leaving because of better tax situations beyond the state’s borders.

Barnett also proposed a 10 percent tax credit for any capital investment a business makes in its enterprise. For example, if a business purchases a $2,000 computer system, it could subtract $200 from its state tax bill.

Barnett said he also would push for two amendments to the state constitution. The first one would decree that only the legislature can appropriate tax money for the state budget.

“The Supreme Court now controls school financing and ultimately controls our budget in the state of Kansas,” he said. “I think that’s wrong. I think the people you elect-the people you voted on and can hold accountable-ought to be controlling school funding and the budget.”

The second amendment would change how judges are chosen for the state’s highest court.

“I do not think the Kansas Supreme Court reflects the values of most Kansans,” said Barnett, citing its decision to end the death penalty as one example.

“Now, we have a nominating committee that’s supposed to be apolitical,” he said. “The nominating committee is made up of nine people. Five of the nine come from the Kansas Bar Association, including the chair.

“You have a system where the very people (lawyers) go in front of to argue cases in the Kansas Supreme Court, they picked and might even seek favors from them. It reeks of conflict of interest.”

Barnett said he favors a process patterned after the federal system: the governor would nominate a justice and the State Senate confirms or or denies the nomination.”

Q&A interaction

In the question-and-answer time following the two presentations, the discussion ranged from the Topeka’s new conceal-carry legislation regarding handguns, the policies of Mike Hayden as secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks, funding for people with developmental disabilities and school vouchers.

Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke asked for the two legislators’ assistance in getting Marion Reservoir listed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment as a “critical water quality management area.”

The designation is necessary, she said, before a study can be done regarding the blue-green algae problem at the lake. Dalke said the study is critical to developing a strategy for combatting the algae problem, which affects the water source for three communities on the county as well as drawing tourism dollars to the area.

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