Positive news is scarce in NEJC legislators’ assessment of recently concluded session

Rep. Melissa Rooker poses with a constituent who wanted to take a selfie as people talked individually with legislators after the session.
Rep. Melissa Rooker poses with a constituent who wanted to take a selfie as people talked individually with legislators after the session.

Four northeast Johnson County state legislators had little positive to report in their assessment of the recently concluded 2015 Kansas legislative session. “Politics won out over sound policy,” Sen. Kay Wolf told a crowd at the Sylvester Powell Community Center Saturday.

“We are in a financial crisis this year,” Wolf said. Her preference was a repeal of the 2012 tax cuts. “That to me would have been the answer,” she said, but there were not enough votes for that to happen.

“It took a toll on a lot of people,” Rep. Melissa Rooker said of the historic overtime session and the all night meetings. “Leadership employs tactics that are designed to break us,” she said. “(There were) colleagues … I was concerned about their health. The legislation that passed was not at all good for Kansas.”

Rep. Stephanie Clayton said the legislature was “exercising the height of hypocrisy” by voting for the largest tax increase in Kansas history while at the same time putting a cap on how local governments can raise taxes. Clayton said the 63-page tax bill was printed only 10 minutes before representatives were required to vote on it.

“It doesn’t seem like proper governing to me,” Rep. Jarrod Ousley said. Much of the procedure was done in conference committee, he pointed out, without being debated by the representatives.

The legislators answered a number of questions, touching on a variety of topics, from the audience that numbered approximately 160 for the forum, which was sponsored by the Prairie Village Post and the NEJC Chamber.

What’s coming next year – Whether revenues are up or down will play a big role in the 2016 session, Wolf said. State balances are “razor-thin” and it could result in serious trouble, Clayton said.

Property tax cap – A limit place on how much local governments can raise in property taxes – tied to the Consumer Price Index – will have an adverse effect on the future of development and sustainability in Johnson County, Clayton said. Ousley called it a vote for some representatives to be able to say: “here, we are keeping your taxes down.” Rooker said it could cause “real trouble in the future” and noted the timing of the required election does not coordinate with the municipal budget process.

Sales tax increase – Rep. Clayton said restaurants and grocery stores along the state line are highly concerned. “Everyone is going over to Missouri.” The tax also penalizes senior citizens who are living on a fixed income, she said. Ousley noted that sales tax is lower in Missouri and food and gas are cheaper.

K-12 school funding – “If there is any good news,” Sen. Wolf said, the block grant funding was not touched. “I am concerned about the outlook for our schools,” Rooker said. She has been asking what happened to the process of drafting a new school funding formula. She also noted that schools do not get money for extra students next year.

School vouchers – “It’s a money laundering scheme in my mind,” Rooker said. The bill removes the requirement that the scholarship money can be used for students who were in Title I schools. It also allows schools to invoice for the money rather than families. She said some Catholic families who tithed did not get billed for Catholic education, but now the school can invoice for it. “This is a giveaway of state money that has no accountability,” she said.

Local elections – “They (cities) do a much better job of running their governments,” Wolf said to applause. She said there has been a big push to take over local decisions. Clayton said the governor had called for the change from spring to fall. She expects to see a future push to move the local elections to even years and then to partisan. “I believe there is a somewhat nefarious purpose.”

Engagement – Politics has become so “unsavory” it turns good and decent people away, Rooker said. “We have to take back our election process. We, as a people. You have got to pay attention to who is paying for the postcards and the ads.”

Rep Jarrod Ousley, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Rep. Melissa Rooker listen as Sen. Kay Wolf answers a question Saturday.
Rep Jarrod Ousley, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Rep. Melissa Rooker listen as Sen. Kay Wolf answers a question Saturday.