Taxes, Schools Dominate Legislative Update

The four Salina area lawmakers were were back home Saturday to give an update on the 2016 Legislative Session in Topeka.

A crowd of about 50 people participated in a question and answer session Saturday with Senator Tom Arpke and  State Representatives, Steven Johnson, Diana Dierks and J.R. Claeys.

Much of the conversation centered on economics and education.

Legislators have been taxed with balancing a budget that includes a supreme court mandate to give more funding to schools, at a time where revenues are millions of dollars less than anticipated.

Johnson said that everyone is well aware of the current $50 million shortfall. He said that it would not surprise him if the shortfall grows to $150 million by the end of this fiscal year, and in excess of $200 million by next year.

Many point to tax cuts to small businesses and LLCs championed by Governor Sam Brownback as part of the problem. Dierks said that while it was anticipated that under 200,000 businesses and LLCs would take advantage of the tax plan, that number is now at 333,000 and growing. Johnson said that while the policy seemed sound, cutting the taxes that businesses pay to stimulate their economic growth, it is not working that way. “It is driving tax avoidance instead of job creation,” he concluded.

All of the legislators indicated that they would be willing to look at changes in the policy. Johnson said that representatives from 20 small businesses and LLCs from across the state, from Garden City to Lenexa, testified that they would not be against a change in the tax policy. The legislators, though, were in agreement that change is very unlikely to happen during the current legislative session. Claeys said that the governor has indicated that he will not support changes to the policy, and would veto any that come across his desk.

Education was also a major topic of discussion. Back in February, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a new funding formula enacted by the Kansas Legislature last year is unconstitutional. In essence, the courts said that schools in Kansas are underfunded.  Johnson conceded that schools in Kansas are under funded. “With current mandates and expectations, we are not funding our schools adequately,” he said. But how much is adequate? That’s what legislators cannot agree on. Arpke said that he is right now, using input from 18 different school districts, working on the 28th version of a funding plan. “I worry that leadership won’t let us bring it to a vote,” he added. There currently is not a funding plan that is well received in either chamber, the house or senate.

STAR Bonds were also discussed. Local officials are planning to use STAR Bonds as part of the funding for a major project to renovate the Salina downtown area. The program has become politically charged though, this session. Claeys said that STAR Bonds have been abused for projects in the Kansas City and Wichita areas. He said that the Salina project is not an abuse of them, and while it is still not a certainty, he is confident that the project will not lose the funding.

Legislators will be back in Salina for their third and final update in May at the Chamber.