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.
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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:
• Hire Kansas First Act: A proposal to require any contractor or subcontractor working on a state contract worth at least $100,000 a year to ensure at least 70 percent of employees working on the contract are Kansas residents. That would exclude lease agreements, lease-purchase agreements, contracts that aren’t only for acquiring goods, projects that require expertise not readily available in Kansas and local government contracts.
• Application discrimination: This bill would ban employers from using an applicant’s credit history when deciding whom to hire, except for positions that require employees to have regular access to personal or financial information.
• Immigration accountability: It would require state and local government agencies and contractors and subcontractors under contract to verify their employees’ residency using the federal E-Verify system.
• Worker classification: The idea would increase penalties for employers who intentionally misclassify an employee as an independent contractor.
• Student tax credits: Democrats propose giving students enrolled in post-secondary courses an individual income tax credit mirroring federal education tax credits. Students who get the federal credit would also get a credit equal to 10 percent of that amount on their state tax return.
• Apprenticeships: The idea would provide nonrefundable tax credits to businesses that sponsor apprenticeship programs. Those companies would be eligible for up to $1,000 per apprentice per year, for up to four years. Apprentices must be working for the business at least seven months during the year.
• Bio-tech: Democrats propose removing the $35 million cap on the Kansas Economic Growth Act, approved in 2006. They propose $4 million increases each year, until it is fully funded in 2017.
• Disadvantaged businesses: The plan would create an outreach program to help small, minority and woman-owned businesses participate in state and post-secondary education contracts for goods and services.