Pipefitter Steve Atwood hasn’t been able to find work in Wichita for two years.
To feed his wife and three young daughters, he’s been traveling the country to wherever he can find temporary work, most recently in Illinois.
He’s seen his family a total of 35 days since November of 2010. And when he does come home, “It’s kind of like I’m a stranger walking into Mom’s home after 20 years,” he said.
So Tuesday found him at the Plumbers and Pipefitters apprentice hall in Wichita, sharing a stage with nine Democratic state legislators as they revealed their plans to try to create more jobs.
The lawmakers’ multipart package offered ideas ranging from a speedup of road construction to expanding and redirecting income from gambling – including a call for a revote of the election in which Sedgwick County voters rejected slot machines at Wichita Greyhound Park.
The “Kansas Jobs First” proposal includes 14 bills lawmakers plan to introduce during the 2012 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9. The plan aims to ensure state spending goes to companies that employ Kansans, improve training programs, fix aging infrastructure and protect workers.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, acknowledged that his party’s plans face an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Legislature, but he and others said they think their proposals will get bipartisan support and they may be able to build a working majority with more moderate lawmakers in the Statehouse.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said a lot of attention has been focused on school finance, Medicaid reform, tax policy and other issues. “But there’s no more important issue, we believe, for the Legislature to spend its time on than the issue of creating jobs for the people of Kansas,” he said.
Hensley said the economy has begun to recover from the recession, but more than 50,000 Kansas workers are still unemployed.
“Families are still struggling to keep a roof over their head, to pay for their child’s doctor bills, to keep their gas tank full,” Hensley said during a news conference in the Statehouse. “Workers are stuck in low-wage jobs because they lack the money or time to obtain the skills that will help them find work at a higher wage.”
The proposal calls for state gambling laws to lower the $200 million investment threshold required to open a casino to $100 million. Democratic leaders say that $200 million minimum has prevented southeast Kansas from getting a destination casino. The plan would also modify thresholds for slot machines at racetracks to help reopen racetracks in Crawford, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties.
One proposal would use some gaming revenues for repairs at state universities and to fund city and county infrastructure projects, such as repairing crumbling sidewalks and aging sewer systems. Democrats say industry estimates show opening three existing racetracks with slot machines would generate $33 million a year for the state and that opening a new casino in southeast Kansas would add $11 million a year.
But Gov. Sam Brownback has said he doesn’t want the Legislature to tackle the issue because it distracts too much from other pressing issues. Later Tuesday, Brownback issued a brief statement about the Democrats’ proposal: “We welcome all ideas on how to create jobs in Kansas, and look forward to working with all Kansas legislators in the coming session to move our great state forward.”
But, he added, “Our focus is on the full agenda already proposed with KPERS reform, pro-growth tax policy, Medicaid reform, school finance and water conservation.”
Another bill would accelerate projects in the T-Works program, the state roads plan, which Democrats say is slated to spend $440 million next year and $237 million in 2013 on road projects across the state. Their bill would push forward at least $50 million of that work by putting out for bid in February any projects that have engineering complete.
Hensley said the T-Works acceleration proposal should have a lot of support. He said it is projected to create 175,000 jobs over 10 years. “That is a big deal for the state of Kansas,” he said. “And if we can accelerate that program, we’re going to create jobs much sooner than would have been otherwise. And I think that’s something that should definitely have bipartisan support during this legislative session.”
Hensley said Democrats researched and prepared their proposals with input from the business and labor communities.
The Democrats’ full set of proposals would cost $11.1 million from the state’s general fund in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. But it is projected to generate $5.4 million in 2014 and $15.4 million in 2015. The revenue hinges entirely on gambling income.
The Kansas Republican Party said it welcomes the Democrats’ ideas and plans to study them further.
“At first brush, however, the 14 points appear to emphasize even more direct government intervention in the market, more spending, more regulations, and more tax code complexity,” the party said in a statement.
Democrats’ other proposals include: