Opinion Columns & Blogs

Seven legislative issues to watch in 2011

Kansas won't have to worry about consolidating four congressional districts down to three in the 2011 legislative session, but it will have plenty of other problems to face. Here are seven issues that will need attention next session:

* The budget. In 2010 the legislative session was dominated with finding a way to overcome massive budget shortfalls. The solution was to either cut spending or increase taxes, and the Legislature chose massive cuts and a sales-tax increase. The sales tax likely won't be a long-term solution with the new regime, but if taxes drop then spending must be cut. Where the cuts hit — either deep surgical ones or general across-the-board ones — will make for the most controversial angle of the 2011 session.

* K-12 funding. Gov.-elect Sam Brownback already has expressed interest in re-examining the base funding formula that determines how much each local school board gets to spend. In public statements, Brownback has mentioned a primary goal of getting more money into classrooms, which is usually code for cutting administrative positions or salaries. How to mandate that without triggering more lawsuits remains to be seen.

* Economic growth. Government schemes to solve economic downturns rarely work, but Brownback thinks a tax credit for people moving to rural areas and a tax cut for everyone else is a good plan. Only jobs can spur economic growth, and no plan has a clear path to additional job creation.

* Higher education. College leaders are concerned about how much more cutting can be done and how Brownback's degree-micromanagement program would hurt the pivotal element of economic recovery — an educated work force. Brownback would like colleges to focus on specific programs, such as Wichita State University's aviation program. Presumably, any student who wanted to major in one of the non-preferred programs would pay dearly for the opportunity.

* Entitlements. Brownback has said he wants to address the state's Medicaid funding. Speculation followed that he would like to reduce state funding in favor of medical savings accounts, presumably for cost savings now and flexibility should the federal health care coverage mandate survive the many court challenges facing it.

* The balancing act. Ironically, when governments become unified under one party, the governing is often more chaotic than when power is split between the parties. Brownback and his legislative liaison, Tim Shallenburger, will be under pressure from the newly elected conservatives to press hard right, especially on social issues. But when the economy struggles, voters want focus there and not on abortion and gay marriage. If Brownback can successfully balance pragmatism and the interests of the center-right and polar-alliance wings of the party, he can be a rousing success as governor. If open warfare breaks out between wings of the party, all could be lost.

* Redistricting. Even though there won't be warfare on compacting federal seats, Kansas soon will have to redraw district lines. Drawing district boundaries often predetermines what kind of ideology that district's representative will have, and so every elected member of the Legislature will have a stake in the new boundary lines of his district. Redistricting is also of great concern to the western part of the state, because the results could signal a further shift of power to the eastern part of the state.