Top turnout in trying times

The deeper the budget crisis, the bigger the turnout.

Judging from attendance last year and this year, that seems to be the formula for enticing local voters to attend a legislative coffee with their state legislators.

Following a memorably high turnout of about 45 people a year ago, around 60 crowded into the east meeting room of Hillsboro?s city hall early Saturday morning to hear reports from Rep. Bob Brookens and Sen. Jim Barnett.

The news wasn?t good.

Brookens opened the session with word that unofficial figures for the state?s revenue in February fell below predicted estimates by about $70 million.

That means, he said, the current 2010 budget will be underfunded by about $100 million, and that revenue for the 2011 budget lawmakers must approve during this legislative session will be about $471 million below what was approved for 2010.

?The question is, what do we do with this hole?? Brookens asked.

Barnett noted in his opening remarks, ?I suspect there will be more reductions.?

That doesn?t bode well for school funding, and Brookens reported that efforts in this session to restore Medicaid cuts to nursing homes had already failed. Cuts for the six homes in Marion County totaled nearly $850 million.

Barnett, a physician from Emporia, called the state?s 10 percent cut in Medicaid ?terrible, probably the worst cuts that could have been made.?

He said for every $3 cut from the state, nursing homes lost $7 in matching funding from the federal government.

Most of the 75-minute gathering was devoted to questions from patrons.

One person called the Schools for Fair Funding lawsuit against the state ?nonsense,? and asked about instituting a ?loser pays? approach for recouping litigation expenses.

Barnett said ?loser pays? wasn?t likely but did say in regard to the suit, ?this is a terrible time to sue the state when we?re all feeling the (financial) punch in the gut.?

Two USD 410 administrators contributed to the discussion. Evan Yoder, elementary school principal, noted the importance of developing a child?s reading skills as early as possible. With Head Start funding being threatened, he asked if legislators were considering ways to generate more revenue rather than initiate more cuts?

In regard to revenue, Barnett said ?everything is on the table,? including repeal of tax exemptions, increases in sales tax on tobacco as well as adding a sales tax to utility bills.

?For right now, we have to force ourselves to find efficiencies in operation,? he said, particularly the way the state itself operates.

Meanwhile, Steve Noble, USD 410 superintendent, encouraged the two legislators to correct some of the ?wild information? publicized about school finances, particularly regarding the amount of money that actually goes to classroom teaching.

A Peabody resident said the demands of the federal government?s No Child Left Behind initiative doesn?t take into account the varying capabilities of students. So when a school fails to meet the program?s benchmarks because of one or two students, the district comes under scrutiny.

He argued for ?the return of common sense,? which drew affirmation from others in the room, including the two legislators.

Lu Janzen, chief executive officer at Parkside Homes Inc. in Hillsboro, pleaded with Brookens and Barnett not to go along with efforts to tax nursing home beds for the sake of education funding, nor to cut education funding to help nursing homes.

?We need both (institutions),? she said, adding, ?Taxing long-term beds is going to be devastating.?

One person asked about simply rolling back state spending to earlier levels.

Brookens said unlike a husband and wife who can quickly agree on cuts when the household budget is tight, members of the House and Senate have dozens of ?spouses? to deal with.

He said representatives from urban and rural districts ?see the world very differently,? which makes it difficult to agree on funding choices.

Barnett, who is a candidate for Jerry Moran?s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said the present course of federal government spending, as well as its unfunded mandates on state and local governments, must be corrected if the U.S. economy is to prosper again.

Most nations of the world, he said, view the United States as a declining economic superpower.

To turn that around Barnett advocated three priorities for federal and state economic policy: (1) keep tax rates as low as possible and competitive with neighboring entities; (2) maintain a stable regulatory structure that is fair and predictable; and (3) maintain a strong infrastructure, including roads and schools.

Following the meeting in Hillsboro, Brookens and Barnett headed to Marion to lead a similar gathering at Zimmerman?s coffee shop.

The two events were hosted by the respective chambers of commerce.

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