Politics & Government

Kansans pack legislative forum on budget cuts

No one's likely to get all they want when the Legislature reconvenes Wednesday to produce a state budget for the coming year.

The south-central Kansas legislative forum drew more than 100 people and about 20 legislators Saturday to the Wichita Independent Business Association. That's twice the number who attended a similar forum in January.

And it's five times the number who showed up in past years, said Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, who chaired it.

Audience members and legislators all seemed to agree that additional cuts in funding for education or social services, such as those for disabled people and senior citizens, could hurt people as well as programs.

But the legislators had widely divergent opinions on what to do instead:

* Rep. Melany Barnes, D-Wichita, said the state should quit cutting taxes and borrowing money.

* Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, wants the state to sell excess state-owned land and buildings, then lease space as needed.

* Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, wants state programs such as Medicaid to be examined for fraud.

* Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said business tax cuts and sales tax exemptions need to be looked at.

* Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, countered that Kansas residents have been big beneficiaries of tax cuts, too — and asked whether people wanted them to end.

Several legislators noted that the House and the Senate both have revised 2011 budget proposals to consider. The House budget restores some earlier cuts but does not require a tax increase; the Senate's would require about $412 million in new taxes.

Audience members submitted written questions for the legislators, which limited but didn't eliminate outbursts.

When Kelley said studies showed that increasing the state sales tax would force businesses to close and raise unemployment, someone yelled, "It didn't happen with the arena."

Audience members applauded the idea of increasing the sales tax, but legislators seemed less sold on the idea.

Most said they wanted to know what would be in the budget before deciding whether any taxes need to be raised.

The audience reaction to increasing the sales tax was in direct contrast to the forum in January, when the message was just the opposite: Don't raise taxes.

Even before Saturday's the forum began, disagreements were evident. Those supporting education, services for senior citizens and services for disabled people held signs outside to make their case to passing motorists.

Sheila Martin of Hutchinson, who said she'd been a tavern owner for 29 years, told those holding a "Support Our Schools" banner that she'd been supporting them with $12,000 to $14,000 a year in liquor excise taxes.

"We've been supporting schools. I wish you guys would support us," said Martin, who leads a coalition of business owners who want exceptions added to the smoking ban enacted by the Legislature earlier this year.