Legislators update constituents
Budget shortfall driving decisions Legislators say pipeline exemption a moot issue
Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia and Rep. Bob Brookens of Marion met with constituents Saturday in Hillsboro and Marion to provide updates and to field questions.
The budget shortfall continues to be the driving force in making difficult decisions. State funds were $550 million in the red but are now less than $500 million following Gov. Sam Brownback’s cuts after he took office in January.
Funding has to be cut somewhere and it appears that public education will get another swipe. Another $200 will be taken from the base student aid next year, Longbine said, bringing the funding to $3,400 — similar levels as in 1992.
Another proposal aims to give school districts the responsibility of funding school activities on a local level.
“I like the idea,” Brookens said, “but the definition of activities is whatever the school wants to fund. It needs to be clearly defined.”
Longbine said he believes this would create the “haves and have-nots” with some school districts being able to compile a winning football team while other school districts struggle to pay the bills.
Pipeline tax exemption
County commissioner Dan Holub asked if there was a bill to repeal a 10-year property tax exemption the state legislature granted to the Keystone pipeline going through six Kansas counties, including Marion.
“Yes, there is a bill to repeal it but it won’t be heard,” Brookens said.
The bill, HB 2350, will require a payment from the pipeline company in lieu of taxes but it wouldn’t include the first pipeline already constructed in the state, Brookens said. The bill, if passed, would require the payments for any future pipelines.
“I was told there won’t be time for that bill to be heard,” Brookens said.
Longbine showed a map, dated 2004, which showed a pipeline from Canada going through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri, bypassing Nebraska and Kansas.
(This newspaper previously reported that the original route did not include Kansas because the oil product was going to be transported to Wood River, Ill. At the end of 2005, the route was changed with Cushing, Okla., as the destination — the most direct route being Nebraska and Kansas.)
A tax exemption and tax credit would be issued if Kansas has access to it. The real question is what is access? Brookens said.
“This happened before I got there,” he said. “At the end of the day, it won’t pass. It doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying but I can’t make it repeal.”
Longbine said he also tried to find out why the exemption was allowed when there was a question whether the company met the requirements.
“I wasn’t part of the negotiations and discussion,” he said. “Most of what I found was opinion.”
He said he went to numerous leaders in the Senate but did not get any support because of the legality of it.
“The contract will hold up. We can’t change the game after the rules are set,” Longbine said.
Another reason state legislators are not in favor of negating the exemption is the state does not want to have a reputation of pulling exemptions.
Longbine recalled when Westar Energy built a plant in Lyon County near Emporia. The state granted the company a tax exemption, which was out of the hands of county or city government, but the tax windfall after the exemption period was worth it, he said.
Rural Opportunity Zones
Senate Bill 298, which has passed, will provide incentives for new residents who more to those counties in the opportunity zone that have experienced a population decline. Marion County is the largest of the counties to qualify.
For anyone moving from another state to one of the 40 counties in Kansas that qualify for the incentives, the state could forgive state income taxes for five years. The counties could offer another incentive of paying half of the new residents’ student loans, $3,000 per year up to five years, with the state paying the other half.
The incentive is an effort to bring people to Kansas and to those counties in the opportunity zone that have a population of 12,000 or less and experienced an 8 percent or more population decline from 2000 through 2009.
Marion County lost 10.3 percent of its population in the 10-year period.
This also would include those who leave the state to attend college. To qualify, the new residents had to live out of state for at least five years.
The bill, SB 54, to expand liquor sales, has been the hottest topic for constituents, both local legislators said. The bill, if passed, would allow strong beer and wine to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. However, the only way grocery and convenience store owners could sell spirits is to buy an existing liquor license from someone within the county in which the store would be located.
“We wanted to make sure liquor store owners had equity,” Longbine said.
The bill also would require anyone handling the liquor — stocking or selling — be 21 years old and liquor stores could sell other items with the alcohol. Currently liquor stores can only sell beer, wine, and spirits.
Brookens said there are concerns about how it would be enforced. Former Marion County Sheriff Ed Davies provided written testimony regarding enforcement.
The bill has passed out of the Senate committee but both legislators were doubtful it would pass in the Senate or House.
SB 77 will restore funding to the unemployment fund. However, those applying for benefits will not be paid for the first two weeks after losing their jobs. Studies show that most people are re-employed in the 19th week of unemployment, Longbine said. Unemployment funding will continue for 26 weeks.
Another change will be an increase of payments by employers who receive more unemployment benefits than pay in.
The state had a surplus of funds — $500 to $600 million — before the recession, Longbine said. During the recession, the fund was depleted and is now $100 million in the hole. The state borrowed money from the federal government, which has to be repaid with interest by 2013, or the state will lose federal funding.
Those receiving unemployment benefits who leave the state will no longer receive Kansas unemployment benefits.
Business owner Dave Crofoot of Marion said he the change wouldn’t help companies like his who had no choice but to lay off a number of employees.
He questioned how companies can get back on their feet if they have to pay in more unemployment taxes.
Speed limit increase
The speed limit for four-lane highways will increase to 75 mph. Brookens said he wanted to see it restricted to limited access highways but that bill didn’t pass. Studies have shown there are no more or fewer crashes on four-lane highways than other roads.
Tony Epp of Goessel said it would allow tourists to get across Kansas faster. Crofoot said he didn’t understand why the state would spend the money to change the signs if there was such a deficit.
The House discussed voter identification. Brookens said he was concerned about older people and how they would obtain voter identification. Voters would have to prove citizenship. Those already registered would not have to register again. Photo identification would be required at polling sites. The enforcement of the law was a concern because the secretary of state wants to enforce it.
Two bills related to abortion passed through the House. Late-term and partial-birth abortions will no longer be allowed. The term “fetus” was changed to “unborn child.”