Legislative coffee:Interesting session

5/15/2014

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Area legislators who attended Thursday night's final legislative coffee at St. Catherine Hospital called the recently completed Kansas legislative session "interesting."

"Probably the best thing we did this spring was we got out of town after 79 days," Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said.

Hineman said it was one of the shortest sessions the Legislature has had in recent years, not because of a shortage of work, but because it's an election year for all statewide offices including the governor.

"Some people wanted us to get out of town quick before we caused any more trouble," he said.

Hineman and Reps. John Doll, R-Garden City, and Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, gave their take on the session during the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, which was moved up a couple of days from its normal Saturday morning schedule.

All three painted a gloomy picture of the state's budget outlook over the next few years.

Doll said estimates by the non-partisan Kansas Legislative Research indicate if the state continues along its current path, it will only have $14 million in reserves by 2017, and will be out of money by 2018.

Jennings said those forecasts don't even take into account the estimated $93 million shortfall in projected revenues in April, illustrating a trend that the state is continuing to take in less money than it is spending.

"Try that with your checking account for a year or so and see what happens. At some point, you're not going to be paying your bills anymore," Jennings said.

Even with a tax increase next year, revenue won't come in quickly enough to fund budgets

growth in the next six months," Jennings said, though he isn't holding much hope of an increase in growth.

Hineman said Jennings was painting "too rosy" a picture about state finances because April's revenue estimate shortfall may not be a one-time event.

"There's whispers we may see something similar in May and June. We could be close to $300 million below estimates by the end of this fiscal year," he said.

Another reason for gloom is the state's bonded indebtedness, which Hineman said has increased $800 million from 2011 to 2013. So not only is the state engaging in deficit spending, Hineman said, it is borrowing at the same time.

"That's not fiscal conservatism. That's not prudent. Obviously, we can't continue down that road," he said.

While they voted to approve the state's budget during a wrap-up session that lasted until 2 a.m. May 3, legislators were not pleased with the way the budget bill moved forward. All three said the vast majority of House members had no say in the final draft.

Normally, the Senate and House each pass a budget and differences are worked out in a conference committee. This year, the Senate passed a budget, but the House did not. Hineman said the House Appropriations Committee considered a budget but never brought it to the floor.

Instead, he said, the conference committee's two House members negotiated a position on behalf of the entire House without any input from the other 122 members.

"It takes the voice away from constituents. We had no say in the budget. It was brought to us as an up or down vote, with no opportunity to amend," Hineman said.

The legislators indicated that while there were things they didn't like, things they disagreed with, they felt the final version could have been much worse.

"I did vote for the budget. There are lots of things that I didn't like about the budget," Doll said. "We were put in a place where we had a choice of bad things to vote on. I voted for the budget, and I'm not proud of it. But it's something I felt like I had to do."

In response to a question from the audience asking what each felt was the greatest success of the past session, all three said the fight against repeal of renewable portfolio standards and support for $129 million in equity funding for K-12 education.

Hineman was concerned the state was heading for a constitutional crisis if the Supreme Court decision earlier this year had been more onerous and required more dollars than it did.

"Their ruling was easier to digest, and I was amazed that people came back to Topeka with the attitude, 'We've got to do this. Let's find a way to do it,'" Hineman said.

Jennings estimated there must have been seven or eight votes attempting to repeal the state's renewable energy standards, which require utility companies to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Hineman noted that he, Jennings and Doll voted against the repeal each time.

"It was amazing how hard-headed those folks were. They just couldn't accept the fact that they got beat," Hineman said. "All three of us voted against repeal every single time, and we hope you folks take note of that, because we know Americans for Prosperity will take note of it."

Americans for Prosperity and the state Chamber of Commerce have been leading the charge for repealing the standards. Hineman said most area residents recognize that renewable energy, primarily wind power, has provided much needed economic activity and jobs, and is a good thing for rural Kansas.

However, the issue is likely to become a campaign issue this year, legislators said. They urged the public to consider the source when postcards making claims against local legislators are received.

"Don't be fooled," Hineman said. "When you get postcards this campaign season, take a look at the return address and ask yourself who is that entity and why are they trying to change the outcome of my local election? If they aren't local people, that ought to be a red flag."

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