House speaker lists concerns facing Kansas

Speaker of the House Melvin Neufeld, a 1962 Tabor College grad, addresses the Learning in Retirement Program participants Monday at his alma mater. Malinda Just / Free Press

Kansas Speaker of the House Melvin Neufeld addressed severall hot-button issues during a presentation at Monday?s 60+ Learning in Retirement at Tabor College.

Neufeld, who first ran for the Kansas Legislature in 1984, will lead the 2008 session when it begins Jan. 14.

The current decline of Kansas sales tax revenue topped his issue list.

?One of the things that concerns me most about the future of Kansas?sales tax collections continue to drop below estimated expectations, which tells you consumer confidence in Kansas is weakening, people aren?t spending as much on consumer goods,? Neufeld said.

The national housing market scare is a large contributor to the decreased confidence, he said.

?There?s a tremendous amount of hype on the bad real estate loans that some companies made and are coming to haunt them now,? he said.

?But that?s not a big problem in Kansas. We have no Kansas banks that are in trouble because of that. But because people perceive housing to be a problem, it does slow down consumer confidence and that is a bit of an issue for us.?

Another issue Neufeld listed is the proportion of the state budget that goes to education versus health care.

?We spend about two-thirds of the state tax dollars you pay in to support education,? he said. ?And that?s been an increasing amount over recent years. More and more money proportionally of the state budget goes to education, and that trend probably will not stop. Except for one thing?the health care side of the budget is tremendously troubled.?

The trouble comes because ?Medicaid is growing at a tremendous rate,? he said.

The rise in Medicaid comes from a high population of people over 85.

?People over 85 have a pretty high use of assisted living and nursing homes,? Neufeld said. ?That tends to be pretty expensive. And if the demographics continue in the way they are, in less than 20 years, we?ll be spending more on nursing homes and long-term care and Medicaid than we do on education.?

During a question time, Neufeld was asked whether he was pitting the older people against younger ones?either educate the young or take care of the old.

?We have a responsibility to educate the young, we need to find a way to do both,? he said.

A problem Kansas faces in regard to education of the young is that a lot of young people are leaving rural Kansas for a broader job market.

?One of our problems in Kansas that really bothers me a lot is that we have the same export from the 100 rural Kansas counties as the nation of Armenia does,? Neufeld said.

?(Armenia has) a tremendous problem?they have a great school system and no jobs. So they have more young people leaving to go to other nations to work than stay in Armenia.

?That?s exactly the problem we?ve got in rural Kansas. We have an education system that equips kids to go to college and then the majority of those kids can?t find a job to stay in their home community and they leave.

?The 100 rural Kansas county birth rates have been less than the retirement rate for 40 years, and we wonder why our towns are dying,? he said. ?There?s not enough people left to fill it, and there?s not enough opportunity for the young people to come back and raise a family.

?That?s a concern we have to figure out,? he said. ?And I don?t have a lot of good answers.?

A third topic Neufeld addressed was the decision by the Sebelius administration to deny a permit to expand the coal plant at Holcomb.

Neufeld said the governor?s decision made Kansas the only place in the world that has denied a permit to build electric generation based on carbon dioxide.

?When they told us that they were going to deny that permit, I said, ?Well, governor, I only have one question: If you?re going to regulate CO2 admissions, does that mean you?re going to tell me when I can exhale?? Because there?s CO2 in this room, folks. We?ve all been exhaling since I?ve been here.?

Neufeld said carbon dioxide is not a danger.

During the question time, Neufeld was asked what could be done regarding the decision.

?All of us need electricity, we want electricity,? the questioner added. ?We?re also losing that transmission line and I think that?s going to cost us all a lot of money.?

Neufeld responded, ?You?re right about the loss of the transmission lines and the generation capacity costing us a lot of money.

?We?re predicting a 55 percent increase in rates in the next five years because of the loss of that capacity. We?ll have to buy power from out of state, which is pretty expensive.

?The Legislature is looking at a number of options,? he said. ?We?ll find a way I think, and we?re going to do our best to make it possible.?

The Ingalls resident said the wind farm at Montezuma is one of the most successful wind farms in the world.

?It had a turn rate of 41 percent last year, which means it generated electricity 41 percent of the time,? Neufeld said. ?That means if you were dependent on that for electricity, you?d be in the dark 59 percent of the time, which is not a good option.?

Wind source electricity is at best supplemental. That is why a base-load plant to generate electricity is critical.

?What we really need to do, and what the goal is, is to get (a base-load plant) built and the transmission lines built and shut down the seventh dirtiest coal plant in America?the one at Lawrence,? Neufeld said.

?The Lawrence people are opposed to the cleaner one?the Holcomb plant is supposed to be the cleanest and lowest emissions of any plant in the nation. But they don?t want to trade. So we need to build something like that and shut down the Lawrence unit and clean up the air.

?But we?ll continue to work on that, and I think we have a good chance at getting it done.?

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