State business draws the interest of citizens

LegislativeBarnett67.jpg
LegislativeBarnett67.jpg

Sen. Jim Barnett points out the discrepancy between the flattening line of state revenue and the rising line of state spending.

LegislativeBrookens84.jpg

Rep. Bob Brookens (right) chats with Debi Hughbanks, a Goessel schoolteacher, and Doug Huxman, USD 410 superintendent, about education issues in Topeka following the meeting.

LegislativeCoffeeCrowdP2282.jpg

The east meeting room of the Hillsboro Civic Center was nearly filled to capacity Saturday morning as people gathered to listen to Rep. Bob Brookens (left) and Sen. Jim Barnett talk about financial issues facing the state.

With the biggest turnout in recent memory, Hillsboro-area citizens demonstrated their interest Saturday morning in the economic challenges facing the state and nation.

About 45 people came to the annual Legislative Coffee at the Hillsboro Civic Center on Saturday morning, more than double the typical turnout.

State Sen. Jim Barnett and Rep. Bob Brookens were on hand to update them and to hear their concerns, primarily about fiscal responsibility in Topeka and the potential impact down the road of accepting stimulus funds from the federal government.

Armed with a chart showing how plateauing state revenue will not support budget increases passed for 2009, Barnett said the Kansas Legisla?ture has passed a recision budget during this session that will balance the state budget by cutting expenses in the current fiscal year.

The reduction in spending came in part with a cut of $33 per student for K-12 education as well as cuts in higher education.

Still ahead for legislators is to craft a budget for 2010, which projects a $1 billion deficit without any cuts.

?We can?t come through with a billion-dollar deficit, so we?ve started down this path of making reductions,? Barnett said.

At the same time, he added, the stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress could ease the budget crunch over the next two years.

?We?re just now sifting through those multiple pages (of the bill) to find what we can do,? Barnett said.

The key concept in stimulus funding is ?maintenance of effort,? he added.

?It basically says if state governments hold their funding level, then you get access to extra (federal) dollars,? Barnett said.

Preliminary numbers indicate that over the next two years, stimulus funding could bring in about $103 million for K-12 education, about half that amount for special education, around $80 million for higher education and $400 million for Medicaid.

?If we can have maintenance of effort, we can have hundreds of millions of dollars that the state could access to get through this difficult time,? Barnett said.

The concern of state legislators?and of several people in the audience Saturday?is what might happen to the state budget when the federal funds dry up.

?The risk is that we if we get (revenue and expenditures) close together (because of stimulus money), and the economy doesn?t pick up again, in a couple of years we?re going to be right back to where we are now?without enough revenue to pay for it,? Barnett said.

?We?re going to go through a lot of debate and discussion on topic to see if that?s the best thing to do.?

An informal show of hands during the meeting indicated a nearly even split between whether Kansas should accept or reject the stimulus money.

Asked what kind of sales taxes might be required to make up the funding if the federal funds were rejected, Barnett estimated a 5 percent increase ?at least.?

He added there is little serious discussion in Topeka about raising any kind of tax right now?partly because the rates are already high enough for citizens, and partly because the negative impact of Kansas raising taxes when neighboring states don?t.

?If we raise taxes, what does that do to the economy?? Barnett asked. ?What does that do for sales, for instance, and how does that impact Kansas and our bordering states when we?re higher on (taxes than they are). We have to weigh all those things before we raise taxes.?

Brookens added that Kansas citizens will not gain much by not accepting the stimulus funds to support existing programs.

?If we know we?re going to fund something anyway, and if the federal government will help us for two years, and we don?t take advantage of it, we are then paying for Oklahoma?s and Nebraska?s and Missouri?s and Colorado?s, and even California?s acceptance (of federal funds),? he said.

?In an area where we would be (spending) anyway, we would be cutting off our noses to prove a point,? he added. ?But if it?s in an area where we would not be inclined to spend that kind of money, we would still a have a chance to say, ?No, we?re not going to do this.??

Even with short-term stimulus assistance, legislators will need to make budget cuts for 2010, Brookens said?and they won?t come without resistance.

?One of the things I?ve discovered in Topeka is the number of people who are still in denial, who still want to make sure that we fund whatever it is that they?re in Topeka about,? said the freshman representative from Marion. ?And people back home want us to fund whatever they?re about.

?While we may wish to do this, we are going to have to deal with these (budget revenue and expense) lines and get them in sync with each other.?

Brookens said programs that are proving to be successful need to be protected. He cited as examples a dramatic decline in prison recidivism in Kansas and a similarly dramatic increase in test-score progress for special education and K-12 education.

?The infusion of money has worked, and we don?t wish to go backward,? he said, referring to the increase in education funding ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court four years ago.

More from Hillsboro Free Press
Warriors absorb 45-6 loss to defending champion
The Marion football team played with more effort and energy than a...
Read More