Elections

Local legislators' goal: Keeping funding

TOPEKA —Round after round of state budget cuts — with more to come — means lowered expectations for the legislative session that starts Monday.

Usually, south-central Kansans go to Topeka seeking more money for regional goals — doctor training, aviation training and research, lower airfares.

The focus this year is more modest: try to minimize or avoid cutting such programs.

"I think that is a success, to hold the line" said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover.

"I think if there were no cuts that occurred (to regional programs) that would be considered a huge victory," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. "If smaller cuts were made it would still be somewhat of a victory."

The 2011 budget year, which begins July 1, is projected to be $358.7 million in the red. That's after lawmakers and the governor have cut about $1 billion from this year's $6.2 billion budget.

"We as legislators have to determine what cuts we can stomach or where we would find additional revenue," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.

Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, has said cuts to state agencies have reached the crippling point and lawmakers need to look at eliminating tax cuts or raising taxes. Both ideas have met with strong opposition from many Republicans.

Had the state collected money from various tax cuts over the last few years, it probably would have already been spent, said Landwehr. The state would be in worse financial straits without the economic stimulus the cuts provided.

"We trim the excess and we cut the fat, but to pass a tax increase at a time like this would be far worse on the people and far worse on the economic recovery than taking the needed cuts," said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which handles budget issues, said she would be particularly interested to see what state agencies have done to streamline their programs and cut costs.

Lawmakers also need to make sure they don't hurt the state's ability to recover, she said.

"We need to be very careful not to cut those programs that are going to get us out of this recession," she said.

The local legislative agenda includes only projects that help create jobs, bolster incomes and increase education, said Jon Rolph, chairman of Visioneering Wichita and executive vice president of the restaurant chain Carlos O'Kelly's.

Many of the programs — such as $5 million for the Fair Fares program, which helps keep Wichita airfares lower — have records of drawing money into the state.

"These are economic drivers for our region and Wichita is the main economic driver for the state," Rolph said.

"We will certainly use that argument," said Schodorf, about the region's top priorities benefiting the state at large.

Landwehr pointed out that doctors trained at the Wichita Center for Graduate Medical Education help care for Kansans in many underserved communities. Research done at the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research could help diversify the state's economic industry.

"Wichita and Kansas could become a medical mecca," she said.

It doesn't guarantee there won't be cuts but "it makes a big difference," she said.

Investing in the training programs also helps reduce brain drain, said Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita. "We need to keep some of those brains in Kansas."

Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the challenge for local interests is that the delegation has to come back and get the money inserted into the budget each year, he said.

"All of these things we talked about should be in the budget already. It should not be that every year we have to come back every year and beg," he said.

Rolph said community leaders are aware of the challenges that legislators face.

"We understand what a hard year this is and they are all going to have to have to make hard decisions," he said.

"I think our hope would be that we are able to maintain the funding at the current levels," he said. "But we understand there are going to be very few wins for anyone out there."

Key issues

School Finance

Can school funding be cut further? According to one measurement, per-pupil base state aid, state contributions to public education have been rolled back to 2006 levels. Some contend that school funding could be cut more — primary education takes up about 51 percent of state spending — but others, including the governor, say more cuts would be devastating. A coalition of schools plans to sue the state over funding.

Highways

The state's 10-year comprehensive transportation plan has ended, and lawmakers will consider ways to pay for future Kansas road projects. An interim panel has recommended raising between $3.7 billion and $4.4 billion over 10 years through increases to the sales tax on gas. The increases would not take effect until 2013.

Cell phone use

Legislators have introduced a measure that would ban all texting on mobile devices while driving. Another possible measure would require drivers to use hands-free devices while talking on a phone in the car. Teen drivers are already barred from using cell phones while driving under the state's new graduated driver's license law.

Death Penalty Repeal

The high cost of death penalty cases _ four times as much as other cases _ has some lawmakers considering repealing the state's capital punishment law. A Kansas Judicial Council advisory committee of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers helped rewrite a bill debated last year. The Senate Judiciary Committee has set aside four days to debate the issue.

Historic Tax Credits

The city of Wichita has made restoring the state's historic tax credit program one of its priorities. The program, which was cut back last session, is used as a tool to redevelop historic buildings such as the Broadview Hotel. Economic development will be hampered if the cuts remain, supporters say.

Primary seat belt law

Lawmakers could revive an effort that would make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense — meaning officers could pull a vehicle over if the occupants aren't belted in. The idea has previously met with strong opposition from some who see it as an erosion of personal freedoms. This year, the measure comes with the added incentive of an additional $11.2 million in federal funding for states with a primary seat belt law.

Smoking

Gov. Mark Parkinson plans to push for a statewide indoor smoking ban and an increase in taxes on tobacco products. Supporters say the ban would help protect the public from the risks of secondhand smoke and reduce costs on the health care system.

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