Concerns over state budget dominant in NEJC legislative forum

Reps. Melissa Rooker and Barbara Bollier spoke at a Chamber forum Wednesday night at Prairie Village City Hall. Jim Donovan was the moderator.
Reps. Melissa Rooker and Barbara Bollier spoke at a Chamber forum Wednesday night at Prairie Village City Hall. Jim Donovan was the moderator.

It was little surprise that the pending resolution of the Kansas budget problem was center stage at a legislative forum Wednesday night where Reps. Barbara Bollier and Melissa Rooker were the headliners. Both talked about the difficulties of getting to a balanced budget and the uncertainty of how that is going to happen when the legislature reconvenes next week.

“How is Kansas going to pay for its excellent education system,” was the question with which Bollier opened the forum. The magic numbers are 63-21-1, Bollier said, representing the number of votes needed in the Kansas House and Senate along with the governor’s signature to end the dilemma with a revenue plan that works.

No constituents asked to have income taxes removed, Bollier said, and now the state faces a gap with the current budget of up to $700 million. “We are in a pickle. It’s probably bigger than a pickle,” Bollier said. “People who voted for the (tax) plan need to step up to the plate. They have to prove to me they can do the right thing.”

“If your core priority is shrinking size of government,” Rooker said, “this is a big opportunity.” State services and employees have been cut in recent years and now it is hard to fill jobs because salaries have not kept pace. Shifting money out of the transportation budget has left highway maintenance underfunded. She pointed specifically to a stretch of Shawnee Mission Parkway near the Gateway site as evidence of resulting deterioration.

Rooker said other funds are being shifted from their intended use – water conservation fees have been diverted to the general fund and the DMV asked for fee increases because its balance was swept into the general fund. “The basic math is not working,” Rooker said. “We have a real world problem. The solution involves making some tough decisions. This is a tough love moment.”

While money dominated the conversation the audience did ask questions about other issues:

*Municipal and school board elections – Bollier and Rooker predicted they will get moved from spring to fall. A change to partisan elections may come later. “The people have spoken and they don’t want it,” Bollier said of the move.

*Block grants for schools – “Repealing the existing formula without a new plan … is reckless,” Rooker said. Shawnee Mission supported the change, but Rooker noted 284 districts opposed it. She received only one email supporting the move and more than 500 opposed to it.

*Welfare changes – Both Rooker and Bollier opposed the changes to the welfare program saying they should have been left to regulation, not statute, and that they were punitive and mean-spirited. “Every one of us believes in good, reasonable welfare practices,” Bollier said.

The forum was sponsored by the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and Shawnee Mission Health.