LEGISLATIVE COFFEE (Feb. 26): Full story

The budget, unemployment reform, school finance, speed limits and other topics were some of the issues discussed Saturday during a legislative coffee with Bob Brookens, state representative for the 70th District from Marion, and Jeff Longbine, state senator for the 17th District from Emporia.

?The budget drives everything,? Longbine told a group of more than 30 people attending the event.

?If you remember,? he said, ?in early January, Gov. Sam Brownback submitted a budget that called for reduction in expenses in 2011 and estimated a $550 million deficit in 2012, which is now reduced to $498 million.?

Longbine explained that part of that budget discussion is called a rescission bill and that is what needs to get done soon. A rescission makes additional cuts to the current budget year and will tell legislators what the ending balances will be going into 2012.

?It is difficult to do the 2012 budget without knowing where we end up in 2011,? Longbine said.

Maintenance of effort

According to Longbine, the Senate restored a total of $16.8 million and another $7 million in 2012 for what is called the ?maintenance of effort? for the special education fund, which is a match requirement to get federal special education dollars to Kansas school districts.

?The Senate put that in, but the governor and House didn?t have it in their bills,? he said. ?We are at impasse on this.?

Unemployment reform

For the past six years, the unemployment fund balance was between $500 and $600 million, but through the current recession, Longbine said, the fund has been completely depleted.

?We have also borrowed $107 million from the federal government?s unemployment fund to pay claims in Kansas,? he said.

At one time, the state was adding 16,000 people a day.

?It was a disaster,? Longbine said. ?SB 77 will restore funding back to the unemployment fund, and by the end of 2013, we have to pay the money we borrowed back to the federal fund with interest.?

As a vehicle to pay money back, the state raised unemployment rates on employers in Kansas.

According to Longbine, the main changes in the bill would include employers paying unemployment taxes on base wages up to the first $8,000, which will take the base wages up to $11,000. Another change would be an added surcharge on negative balance employers.

?These are employers whose claims are more than what they paid in, so they will pay a surcharge of anywhere from .2 percent to a full 2 percent based on where they fall in those categories,? he said.

Longbine also said reinstating the ?waiting week? when someone applies for unemployment benefits was also done reluctantly.

Spouse moves out of state

?We eliminated the trading spouse provision,? Longbine said. In the new law, people moving out of state, particularly if the wife or husband cannot find a job, would not be eligible for unemployment claims in Kansas.

Revamping the 911 system

SB 50 is a revamp of 911 system, which is the tax people pay on their phone bills to maintain the 911 system within their county.

The tax is collected by the phone company, and it goes through an exchange group and is then distributed to counties, Longbine said.

?If it passes in its current form,? Longbine said, ?Marion County would get $10,191 for maintaining its 911 system.?

Rural opportunity zones

SB 191 Rural Opportunity Zones was part of the governor?s plan, which was passed in the Senate last week.

The bill targets communities with populations of 12,000 people or less.

Marion County is in the zone and is the largest county in the state that is in the zone, Longbine said.

The benefit of being included in ROZ is that if someone lived outside of Kansas in the last five years, the state will forego state income tax liability for five years.

Another provision, if counties decide to do this, is elect to repay student loans for the individual up to $3,000 a year for a maximum of $15,000 in five years. The county would pay half and the state would pay the other half.

Controversial issue

A coalition of grocery store and convenience store owners want the opportunity to sell alcohol in their stores.

Posed as an economic development issue, the coalition stated that a study was done by Art Hall, director of the Center for Applied Economics in the University of Kansas School of Business.

The study stated that if such a bill were passed, it could add up to 15,000 jobs in the state. It could also strengthen grocery store businesses, particularly in the metropolitan areas where a lot of business is being lost across state lines.

Smaller liquor stores could also be more profitable, according to Hall?s study.

The bill in its final form had only one classification of a liquor license and capped licenses available in a particular county.

?I don?t know how many licenses Marion County has available,? he said, ?but if there are five licenses, then for the next five years, the cap is at five.?

The bill also gave instant equity to liquor store owners who may want to sell because they now have a license that could be very valuable to grocery or convenience stores. The provision would also make the switching of licenses harder to do.

Brookens also weighed in on this issue by saying that he already addressed this in the Marion County newspapers.

?It was a Senate matter, but I knew it would be a significant issue to people,? Brookens said.

Regarding the Art Hall study, he said a second study was done by a retired professor who said Hall?s study was ?a bunch of nonsense.?

Issues in the House

Brookens spoke about bills that would increase the speed limit, funding school activities locally, and voter identification.

?The House voted Friday to increase the speed limit from 70 mph to 75 mph on four-lane highways,? he said. ?Two studies indicated that there are no more or less wrecks on four-lane highways.?

Brookens cited examples of four-lane highways killing an inordinate number of people to include Kansas Highway 254, north of Wichita and Interstate 70, east of Manhattan.

The biggest concern, he said, is motorists pulling into traffic from 0 speed with other vehicles already going 70, much less 75 mph from 0 mph or tractors trying to get across.

?It?s scary stuff and insanity,? Brookens said.

School activities

The House has been discussing taking the local activities budget out of the school formula so that activities would be funded locally, and the local community could make the decisions on those items rather than automatic funding from the state.

?Conceptually, I liked the idea,? Brookens said. ?The problem was the definition of activities. With 290 some school districts (across the state), we could be all over the place with what state would or would not fund.?

Longbine said his major concern is with the differences in funding of mill levies and valuations in counties.

?This bill on the athletic-side creates haves and have nots. So when a district can generate 1 mill at $40,000 compared to 1 mill at $20,000 and if that community wants to build a powerhouse football team by hiring the best coach and having the best equipment, they can fund it easier then districts that can?t fund it (to that same extent),? he said.

He said he believes we need to keep competition on more of a level playing field.

Voter IDs

According to Brookens, there are two parts to the Voter ID bill.

The first involves registering and if persons are already registered, they don?t have to do it again. If they aren?t registered, then they will need to come up with some proof of who they are, which could be a passport, birth certificate or other approved documents.

When it comes time to vote, someone would need to produce a driver?s license, passport or identification card?something that has a photo.

One person attending the Saturday meeting asked if the reason for discussing voter IDs happened because there has been a problem.

Brookens said there were eight to maybe 12 issues brought up and of those three or four were verified as problems and those were prosecuted.

The secretary of state, Brookens said, took those eight cases and turned it into 800 possible problems, adding there could be thousands.

?If only I could inflate my income by that method,? he said.

Questions from constituents

Gayla Ratzlaff, coordinator of the Marion County Department on Aging, asked Brookens and Longbine about the governor?s proposed cut of $3.1 million to the Kansas Department on Aging, which is one of the smallest state agencies. Those cuts, she said, would filter down into the senior care act and nutrition site meals.

?Presently in our county,? Ratzlaff said, ?we have four people who are on our senior care act, which is costing about $20,000 and our county gives about $3,000 towards that.?

Some people, she said, might say four people at $20,000 is a ?nice little cut,? but what that plays out to be is if those people don?t have those services in their own home and then end up going into a nursing home, they will soon be on Medicaid, which would cost the state $240,000 each.

Brookens told Ratzlaff that she has a sense on where he stands on the subject, but didn?t elaborate.

Longbine said he supports these programs.

?The governor has made his recommendations,? he said, ?but the House is working on its own budget and the Senate on its own budget and some way at the end of the process in April or May or June or whenever we get done, at some point, we are going to have to find $500 million because the constitution requires we find $500 million.?

Marion County Jail

Someone asked Brookens about the jail in Marion County and wondered where people in the county are supposed to come up with the money to pay for it.

?I told the commission I did not think that we could do a fee basis, which I am correct, we cannot do it,? he said.

?A revisor of the statutes dealing with tax said that making every household pay a fee for the jail was essentially a poll tax (count the heads and divide it).?

In other words, if it were only homes servicing and protecting, then it might be acceptable, Brookens said.

?My guess is there isn?t a rancher in this county that doesn?t want someone jailed who steals his cattle,? Brookens said. ?It?s not a household issue.?

The only appropriate way to fund the jail would be sales tax or property tax.

As for whether the jail is good enough, the state fire marshal erroneously said it was illegally operated, but later backtracked on that.

?We are in a dilemma (about the jail) and need to take action at some point, but are we at the 11th hour?? Brookens said. ?That is up to the commission.?

As for whether the county needs a jail, he added that is for the voters to decide as a county.

The legislative coffee in Hillsboro was sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce. After spending more than an hour in Hillsboro, Brookens and Longbine continued their discussion in Marion.

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