Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lawmakers talk successes, pressure of final votes

By TOMMY FELTS, Herald Managing Editor | 6/10/2013

No legislators went away with everything they wanted, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers representing Franklin County journeyed home from Topeka empty-handed.

“You never get 100 percent of what you want,” state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said. “It’s a mixed bag.”

No legislators went away with everything they wanted, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers representing Franklin County journeyed home from Topeka empty-handed.

“You never get 100 percent of what you want,” state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said. “It’s a mixed bag.”

After the 2013 legislative session wrapped June 2, state lawmakers reflected on some of the successes achieved during the 99-day lawmaking blitz that saw more than 130 new bills signed into law, including a pair of still-disputed, last-minute measures structuring Kansas’ budget and tax plan.

“We’re hopeful,” Tyson said about the success of the 11th-hour legislation, which followed a stalemate between House and Senate negotiators. “We’re trying to bring business to Franklin County. We’re trying to bring in business from other states.”

Among some of the session’s big victories, Tyson said, were the bills relating to expanding the Rural Opportunity Zone, which aims to increase the state’s population; the Food Sales Tax Rebate Plan; boosting law enforcement; drug testing for welfare recipients and training for violators; and lowering the state’s income tax. Tyson said Kansas’ new budget and tax plan are better for the state and its residents, but are more complex than many people realize.

“People are calling this a tax increase, but it’s not,” she said of the plan, which some critics have said will fuel state revenue through increased taxation by $777 million. “People will be paying less in taxes in 2013 than 2012.”

Still, Tyson, who served her first term this year in the state Senate after previously being elected as a House member, said the legislation is not without its faults.

“It’s not a perfect tax bill,” she said. “We needed a tax bill that didn’t leave a hole in Kansas. I think we made a good compromise.”

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, agreed the legislation was a compromise, but said its flaws outweighed its benefits. The Ottawa native and former mayor was among the few Republican lawmakers who voted against both the budget and tax plan.

“People just wanted to break the logjam — get out of town,” Finch said about the early morning vote June 2, adding that the budget and tax bills tend to be tacked onto the end of legislative sessions “because those are the biggest things we do.”

Finch himself crafted a tax proposal amid the House-Senate negotiations, he said. The plan gained traction among some legislative leaders — even being placed into a House counter-offer made to the Senate — but ultimately suffered from poor timing and was rejected, he said.

Serving as the leader of the House Freshman Republican Caucus, Finch said the House chamber was full of intensity and uncertainty during the final moments before the budget and tax plan votes.

“You could feel the pressure in the room,” he said.

In the end, Finch said, he voted against the bills because they simply were too risky for Kansas’ future.

“I don’t want to be guilty of radically changing fiscal policy when we’re not sure how it’s going to pan out,” he said. “That’s a very conservative position to take.”

Still, Finch said he agreed with Gov. Sam Brownback’s move to set a two-year budget, rather than just planning year-to-year.

“Two-year budgeting is a good thing — it builds in stability,” he said. “But those two years should correspond to the two-year legislative cycle.”

Among the targets of the state’s new budget was higher education — state universities now face a 1.5 percent cut for each of the next two years. Finch said the funding change could have been far worse, but added “these cuts need to be targeted — have a rational basis.”

Tyson said she opposed cuts to higher education, but voted for the $14.5 billion budget that laid out the plan.

“Education is critical in our state, and we all know that,” she said. “When we decide to cut from education in our state, we need to have plans to get the best outcomes possible.”

The state senator said the educational community isn’t above spending responsibly and facing accountability.

“Universities need to tighten their belts and pay attention to their pocketbooks,” Tyson said, echoing other lawmakers’ assertions that wasteful spending at state schools helped justify some of the cuts.

During a First Friday Forum in Ottawa Friday at Neosho County Community College’s campus, 900 E. Logan St., Tyson publicly challenged the college’s president, Brian Inbody, over his analysis of how the state’s new budget would impact the Chanute-based community college. After a brief back-and-forth between Tyson and Inbody, which some observers characterized as “confrontational,” “awkward” and “uncomfortable,” the issue was left unresolved.

Looking back at the session, Finch said there was more to lawmakers’ work than just the final few days. Legislators worked long and hard to craft legislation to benefit everyday Kansans, he said. A bill easing the adoption process, as well as legislation targeting sexual offenders, were among those measures he championed and said he hoped his constituents and fellow lawmakers would agree can make a difference.

Finch — who along with state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, served his first term in the House this session — said he quickly learned governing is different than campaigning, but at least one thing remains the same: Time away from family and work is the most difficult adjustment.

“During the session, the hardest part is having enough hours,” he said.

•••

More than 130 bills passed by Finch, Jones and their fellow lawmakers have made it past the governor’s desk, being signed into law. Among the bills signed late or after the session (along with local lawmakers’ votes) were the following:

• House Bill 2149 — Eliminates a $500,000 transfer from the Highway Patrol Training Center Fund to the State General Fund that has occurred each fiscal year since 1992. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• HB 2162 — Prohibits the use of state-appropriated funds, aside from normal and recognized executive and legislative relationships, for lobbying federal, state or local governments regarding gun control issues. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• HB 2199 (Senate substitute) — Makes changes to current alcoholic liquor laws, including amendments to the Club and Drinking Establishment Act and the Kansas Liquor Control Act. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• HB 2213 — Modifies the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, the Retirement System for Judges, and the Kansas Police and Fireman’s Retirement System. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• HB 2249 — Addresses several property-related issues, including allowing tax refunds to landowners when fire districts are annexed by a city. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• Senate Bill 20 — Makes several amendments to the Kansas Offender Registration Act, including clarifying that effective dates for registration requirements reflect when various types of offenses originally were codified and aligning requirements for providing DNA samples to current KBI practices. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

• SB 246 — Reconciles an amendment to statutes that have been amended more than once during the 2013 Legislative Session and previous sessions. [Finch, Yes; Jones, Yes; Tyson, Yes]

Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, contributed to this report.

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