Saturday, April 19, 2014

Legislators debate taxes, education, court pick

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 8/26/2013

Ten days before embarking on a special legislative session in Topeka, two lawmakers representing Franklin County at the Statehouse took questions on the top issues facing Kansas government and Sunflower State voters.

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, and state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, who on Sept. 3 will join fellow Kansas Senate and House members for a three-day special session to address Kansas’ “Hard 50” prison sentence, participated Saturday in the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Legislative Listening Tour” at Ottawa City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St.

Ten days before embarking on a special legislative session in Topeka, two lawmakers representing Franklin County at the Statehouse took questions on the top issues facing Kansas government and Sunflower State voters.

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, and state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, who on Sept. 3 will join fellow Kansas Senate and House members for a three-day special session to address Kansas’ “Hard 50” prison sentence, participated Saturday in the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Legislative Listening Tour” at Ottawa City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St.

While spanning a breadth of topics, the two freshman legislators spoke at length on Kansas’ taxes, Common Core education standards and Gov. Sam Brownback’s recent nomination to the state Court of Appeals.

Taxes

Asked why the Legislature has emphasized eliminating state income taxes at the expense of raising property taxes, Tyson said the state must take risks for economic growth.

“The tax bill [passed by the 2013 Legislature] is not perfect, but there are a lot of good things in it and a lot of things that will help individuals lower their taxes and keep more money in their pocket,” Tyson told the group of several dozen Franklin County residents at Ottawa City Hall. “A portion of that bill is called ‘March to Zero [income taxes]’ — and that doesn’t kick in until 2018. So the path that we’re on will lower income taxes is actually going to help the state and we’re going to see those returns in those numbers very quickly.”

Critics of the plan, which removes some higher education funding in addition to cutting itemized deductions by half, say it unfairly shifts tax burdens to poor Kansans. The measure also is expected to increase state revenue, through higher taxes, by $777 million over the course of five years.

Finch, a former Ottawa mayor, voted against the tax plan before the Legislature recessed on its 99th day. Finch previously said he voted against the measure because it contained irrational, untargeted cuts to core services.

“At the end of the day, you can’t get something for nothing,” Finch said Saturday, adding that if income taxes are eliminated, revenue pitfalls will have to be filled via increased sales or property taxes, or additional cuts to state services. “As we take income tax to zero, there will be less opportunity for revenue sharing between state and local governments and you’ll see property taxes continue to go up.

“Philosophically, do we need to have some cost containment at the state level? Absolutely. ... [But] do we need to take income taxes to zero to do it? I don’t think so. I think you do need some income tax to keep it balanced. I think putting all the burden on sales tax is unfair to the working poor and to the elderly.”

Common Core

In response to a question regarding their thoughts on the Common Core State Standards, the two lawmakers shared conflicting views.

“In theory, Common Core is one of those things that sounds good,” Tyson said. “It establishes a commonality  between states on what our education will be for our high school students — on the surface. But if you start digging down, there’s more to it. ... To me, the more local the decisions, the better. What suits our students in Ottawa, Kansas, might not fit California. We have different needs.”

The Common Core State Standards essentially define each grade level’s minimum reading and math skills as students progress from kindergarten through high school. In addition to spelling out those standards, Common Core also would test students to examine if such educational standards have been met.

In contrast to Tyson’s comments, Finch asserted that the program still allows for local control of education.

“Common Core is actually a process that’s been implemented in Kansas since 2010,” Finch said, adding that the program is intended to promote common educational standards and not a standardized curriculum. “[The Common Core] is so that when a student leaves North Dakota who moves to Kansas will have the same ending set of skills that the students do in Kansas, so that they won’t be behind. ... The U.S. Military is one of the biggest proponents of Common Core because so much of their command staff moves around the country. ... It doesn’t dictate what the local governments have to choose. It is in implementation now, and most districts have already expended the funds to become Common Core compliant.”

Judicial selection

Finch, an Ottawa attorney, said he finds the new law allowing Kansas’ governors to unilaterally nominate judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals undemocratic.

“It’s interesting how we hear a lot of rhetoric out of Topeka about how the federal government gets it wrong, yet we use their judicial selection formula, given everything else they can’t get right,” Finch said. “We were told that the process that we still use for the Supreme Court and that we used to use for the Court of Appeals was secretive and undemocratic, but we did know all the people who applied and we certainly knew the finalists ... We got none of that this time.”

Finch was referring to Brownback’s nomination last week of Caleb Stegall, the governor’s chief counsel, to fill the 14th seat on the Kansas Court of Appeals. In his announcement, Brownback said Stegall was the most qualified choice for the court among 13 applicants who were interviewed, but the governor has declined calls to release details about the other applicants, as was the practice under the previous process for selecting judges.

“I liken this to your spouse comes home with a new car and says, ‘I got the best car on the lot.’ Well, maybe you did, and maybe you didn’t, but I sure would have liked to see what else they had. ... I have a problem with that,” Finch said. “When you’re attacking the current system as being undemocratic and secretive and you impose a system that’s more secretive and one could argue less democratic, I think that’s a mistake.”  

What’s next?

Asked what the legislators expect to be “hot-button” issues in the 2014 legislative session, both Finch and Tyson said they anticipate school finance and corporate farming programs to be hotly contested topics. Tyson encouraged constituents to maintain a vigilant eye on any proposed corporate farming measures, as those could directly affect the Franklin County area.

State Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, did not attend Saturday’s event, citing a scheduling conflict.

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