While many topics and differing views were discussed at a political forum on Saturday in Hillsboro that included both Republicans and Democrats, the Republican politicians pointed out how well both sides do get along.
“One thing I like to talk about is probably the most unknown thing in Topeka and that is how well Republicans and Democrats actually work together. You see controversy on tv and in the media because controversy is what makes the headlines. But the reality is that in the House, we pass legislation better than 70% of the time which is nearly unanimous. We are working together and passing legislation that moves the state forward. Always keep that in mind,” said Representative Stephen Owens. “We really do work together, and we really get along on many issues. I have dear friends on the other side of the aisle. One of my favorite things about being in the legislature is the relationships. I’m a firm believer that we can see things differently, but still come together.”
Owens also mentioned that it’s important for politicians and community members to be able to connect and dialogue.
“We appreciate people that are truly engaged and involved in the process. Even if we don’t always see eye to eye on every issue, it’s important to realize that we are here and communicating and talking and we can do that in a way that is civil and agreeable. That is my goal, to be able to do that and to be able to answer any questions that you might have,” said Owens.
Owens presented information and answered questions at the legislative forum along with Senator Michael Fagg of District 14 and Senator Rick Wilborn of District 35 which Marion County falls under. Each of the three men introduced themselves and told a little about themselves as well as the topics that they have been working on.
Owens opened up the discussion of the recent work by the house and senate on tax policies.
“So there are a lot of different tax policy conversations going on out there. There are conversations around limiting tax on retirement income totally. There is talk on eliminating just the tax on social security. There was a flat tax that was passed by the Senate that will be coming to the House. And if I remember correctly, the Senate also passed ending the food sales tax early in 2024.
Wilborn addressed the food tax bill. He stated that what is going on in the Senate isn’t always how it ends up. It still has to go to the House and vice versa. He said that they have heard from local politicians from county commissioners to city council members that it impacts their revenue and there needs to be some sort of an offset.
“But we took the food sales tax to zero including local food sales tax and I know how that impacts local government. There is a plan to replenish that with another revenue stream if that should come to pass. We wouldn’t let you high and dry. That amendment went on which took the sales tax from 6.5 % for state and anywhere from 1-3.5% for local sales tax down to zero for both,” said Wilborn.
Fagg added that they want to be careful of how this impacts the whole state in this process. There are all kinds of ideas out there of how the deficit can be picked up but nothing has been decided yet.
Owens said, “It doesn’t excite me at all to tell you guys [local government] what to do. I would rather have your citizens going and talking to you guys at city council and have them tell you ‘the state did their part and we want you to get to zero food tax as well’.”
Hillsboro Mayor Lou Thurston replied, “You guys all know that we are very much in favor of home rule and when the legislature takes the matters out of the local community’s hands, we don’t always appreciate that a lot. Another thing we don’t appreciate very much is unfunded mandates… we’re working hard to balance the revenues that we need to provide services to our local communities. All we do is shift the burden from one place to another because it still requires money to operate and provide those services. We don’t want to give up our police department, our fire department, our street department. We need good infrastructure for our community.”
Owens also brought up the state budget.
“We talk a lot about spending and how we control spending. It’s really easy to not control spending when you have a lot of money in the bank. Right now, last check, Kansas was sitting between two and a half, three billion dollars in budget surplus. Now a billion dollars of that is in the rainy day fund and there is talk of putting more into the rainy day fund which is a great idea because we never know what the future holds. There is a lot of talk about recessions at the federal level and we don’t know how that will impact us as a state,” said Owens.
He went on to say that a lot of the money is federal money since the government printed around six trillion dollars during COVID-19. Owens stated that everyone has got to recognize that flow of money has got to stop and everyone needs be really careful with spending on a government level and not continue to grow government just to make sure the money is spent.
Wilborn replied, “Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Well taken.”
Thurston helped end the discussion with a plea to the panel.
“During former Governor Brownback’s legislation, it was proposed that at the local level, we have to be partisan in our political perspective and I will just beg you to never go there again. We need to be people working together for the benefit of our community and our people. We don’t need to be Democrats, Republicans or Libertarians. You can be those things on your own time, but when we are working at the local level, we need to be citizens first.
In other business, the panel:
n discussed water legislation, particularly for Western Kansas. Owens said that out west there are many places that have less than 10 years of water stored.
“How do you balance that with people that have been farming out there for 100 years?” said Owens.
The recent legislation will allow towns and cities to use a specific amount of sales tax to go toward water conservation.
n fielded questions regarding Medicaid/Kancare expansion and the fact that 7 out of 10 Kansans are for it. All three said that there are many factors at play and that Medicaid expansion would be detrimental to Kansas. Owens said he doesn’t find the 7 out of 10 number to be accurate and stated that studies have shown that for hospitals, Medicaid is a loss leader, Medicare causes hospitals to break even and hospitals make their money on private insurance.