Participation was down at the annual legislative coffee in Hillsboro

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LegislativeCoffeeFleming079 With around 60 people attending the annual Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee in Hillsboro two years ago, and more than 30 attending last year, Saturday?s attendance of fewer than 20 prompted State Rep. Bob Brookens to ask the first question of the morning.

?Is the smaller crowd this year meaning that you?re comfortable with us, that you?ve given up on us or that there?s nothing coalescing in your minds or burning in your heart??

No one offered an audible response, but it may have had something to do with the impression that the state?s financial position is finally improving after a couple of years of severe revenue shortfalls and budget cuts because of the economy.

Neither Brookens of Marion, representing the 70th House District, nor Jeff Longbine of Emporia, representing the 17th Senate District, addressed the state?s budget situation in direct terms at Saturday?s gathering.

Instead, the two Republican legislators who represent all or most of Marion County in Topeka talked about redistricting efforts, discussed Gov. Sam Brownback?s tax proposal and school financing formula, and touched on changes in the Medicaid system and the state?s retirement program for public workers.

Redistricting efforts

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Brookens said the district map being proposed by the House would increase the geographic area of the 70th District northward into Dickinson County to include Hope, Elmo and Solomon, plus a narrow stretch further north to just past Interstate 70.

Longbine said the Senate has produced a half-dozen different maps ?going all over the place.? He said the 17th District needs to find an additional 9,700 people to meet representation requirements.

?I am trying my best to hold on to Marion County,? he said. ?It really comes down to strategy on how we?re going to do it.?

He said the Senate needs to create an additional district in the Johnson County area because of population shifts in the 2010 Census, but can?t find a way to redraw the boundaries without throwing two incumbents into the same district.

Longbine said it is possible the new map may place all of Marion County in the 35th District, which currently is represented by Republican Jay Emler of Lindsborg. At present, a thin strip of western Marion County lies in the 35th District.

U.S. districts

As for districts in the U.S. House, Longbine said he has voted against maps that have placed Lyon County and his hometown of Emporia in the ?Big 1st? District instead of the 2nd District.

Brookens said most maps in the Kansas House keep Marion County in the 1st District, but at least one?which he said he was leaning toward?placed the county in the 2nd District.

Brookens said he strongly opposed any map that puts Marion County in the 4th District with Wichita ?because we would be swallowed up.?

Income taxes

The two local legislators said the governor?s proposals regarding income taxes and a new school-financing plan have both hit troubled waters.

Brownback?s income-tax proposal would cut individual tax rates and help thousands of small businesses, but it would eliminate credits and cancel a scheduled decrease in the state sales tax.

?The governor?s tax plan took on water worse than the Titanic did right out of the chute,? Long?bine said.

Everyone wants lower income taxes, but the problem is how to accomplish it, he said. He said the governor?s idea to continue the income-tax increase passed two years ago instead of letting it ?sunset,? as promised, has encountered resistance.

?That became very problematic for those who had voted for the sales tax, and those who had criticized those who had passed the sale tax,? Longbine said.

A House version of the plan would restore some of the tax credits that were on the chopping block, but would borrow $380 million from the state?s highway fund to make up for the lost revenue.

?That?s going to be problematic down the road also, because that will greatly affect projects in my district,? Longbine said.

?I think we?re all interested in income-tax reductions if we can do it prudently and without severely damaging other programs that are very important to our district.?

Brookens said he has explained his position on the tax proposal in his weekly column, Capital Ideas, which appears in the Free Press and other newspapers in the district.

?I am happy to reduce income tax and eager to reduce property tax,? he said. ?I am not interested in the march to zero (income taxes). None of the evidence I have been able to find anywhere suggests that will lead us to a good result.?

School-funding formula

Longbine said he sensed initial support for the governor?s proposal for changing the school-financing formula. But the proposal ran into trouble when Brownback added a provision that standardized teacher evaluations based on student achievement and then post the results on the Internet.

Longbine said he felt such a move was unfair because some districts are located in well-financed districts that offer every educational advantage, while other districts have a significant number of students who come from low-income families and may have limited use of English.

Medicaid changes

Longbine acknowledged that Medicaid spending is ?unsustainable at the current level,? but the governor?s ?managed care? model for Medicaid has been ?troublesome and scary to a lot of people receiving the services.?

But he added, ?The alternatives aren?t very good. Those include double-digit reductions in provider rates, which would make access more difficult, and?more scary?removing people from the system.?

Other issues

Other topics surfaced during the meeting as well.

? Asked by USD 410 superintendent Steve Noble about a proposal to put a 2 percent cap on state budget increases each year, both Brookens and Longbine considered the idea ill-advised?unless that 2 percent is tied to the rate of inflation.

?Any time that you?re going to do something artificial that doesn?t mirror what?s going on in the real world, you?re causing somebody a problem,? Brookens said. ?If (the budget) is growing by 2 percent and inflation is 3 percent, you?re going backward.?

Longbine said it is inevitable that inflation rates in the country will soon increase, given the national debt.

?I could support a 2 percent lid (on state budget increases) if it was tied to inflation,? he added.

? Clint Seibel, Hillsboro?s economic development director, asked Longbine to update the status of Senate Bill 317, which would redefine personal and real property for commercial enterprises.

Longbine said the bill grew out of the effort of a ?renegade appraiser in Montgomery County? to protect the local property-tax base. Surprisingly, the appraiser?s new definition was upheld by the Kansas Court of Tax Appeals.

To illustrate the bill?s impact, Longbine said the property-tax appraisal at an unnamed concrete plant in southeast Kansas would increase from $3.5 million to $25 million.

?It will effectively put them out of business,? Longbine said. ?Local governments are very concerned about losing property-tax base, but we can?t kill industry in the process.?

? Both Longbine and Brookens talked about dinners they attended with other Republican legislators at the governor?s mansion that have led to an investigation regarding possible violations of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Both legislators said they initially were unaware that only Republicans had been invited to the dinners, and to their knowledge the conversations that occurred during the dinners did not violate KOMA.

?There is an investigation going on, and I have fully complied with the investigation,? Longbine said. ?If it?s found that I violated the law, I?ll pay the fine and move on. In my mind, I don?t think we did.?

Compliment from Longbine

About midway through the meeting, Longbine made a point to compliment Hillsboro on its relatively strong economic vitality.

?I continue to be extremely impressed with this community,? he said. ?I have no other community in my district, and I know of no other community in the state of this size, that has increased in valuation, increased in sale tax, increased in school enrollment and has the kind of testing scores that you have in your schools.

?This community has got it going on,? he said. ?I congratulate all of you because it?s not one group?it?s a community that has a vision, a community that is progressive and a community that?s moving forward.?

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