By Dawn Bormann
Expect a flurry of controversial legislation in the next few weeks as lawmakers work to solve a crippling budget deficit.
“We are in trouble. We are in grave, grave trouble,” Rep. Melissa Rooker told constituents during a legislative update session Saturday morning at the Sylvester Powell, Jr., Community Center in Mission.
Lawmakers are scrambling to fix a massive revenue shortfall – figures were $53 million less than expected in February alone.
“In the wake of this news, we have a burst of legislation introduced that really does some crazy things,” Rooker said.
One of the biggest bombshells, she said, came last week when word spread that state budget officials considered a plan to sell future payments from the tobacco settlement for a one-time $400 million cash payment. The state has a long tradition of setting aside the money for early childhood programming.
“For $400 million, the state was looking to sell all of the future annual payments at tremendous cost,” Rooker said. “I think when we’re at the point of that kind of fire sale we really need to acknowledge that we’re in trouble.”
Rooker said it’s time for lawmakers to create a long-term plan to address the state budget.
“We have sold our assets. We have mortgaged the future through the bonding process,” she said. “If you and I were doing this in our own home budget, it would be the equivalent of charging on our Master Card to pay our Visa bill while still using the American Express card to rack up new expenses. We have cleared out our savings accounts. We have cashed in the life insurance plans. We have cleaned out the IRAs early and we are delaying payments to creditors.”
Rooker wants to see the state create a global solution that addresses property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes.
Rooker said she continues to be a firm believer that the state should be putting more money into public education. She’s discouraged that some lawmakers refuse to look beyond two solutions for school funding – either defy the court and refuse to increase funding or comply with the court ruling by using an old plan that strips funding from school districts including Shawnee Mission.
The Supreme Court ruling allowed the Legislature to come up with other options, Rooker said.
“They call us lawmakers for a reason. We are capable of crafting a solution that can solve the responsibility the state has to provide equitable funding around the state without causing harm to our own students,” she said. “So far the bills that have been introduced reflect the will of the leadership. It’s a fight that’s not over – I promise you that.”
Rooker urged voters to stay alert to what’s happening in Topeka during these critical final weeks and call her or other legislators throughout the state.
The calls work, she said, pointing to Senate Bill 311, which was stopped after voters spoke out. The bill would have defunded the Department of Education and transferred administration of public school finances to the Department of Administration, which reports to the Governor.
“It effectively gutted the Department of Education,” she said. “That bill got stopped and that’s credit to you and the people of Kansas who took the time to weigh-in. So lean in to the next two weeks of the session and stay tuned.”
After the session
Rooker also asked residents to make voting a priority.
“Those of us doing the job you wish us to be doing need your support,” she said. “We need those folks who aren’t typically engaged.”
It’s important that community members reach out to those who have sworn off voting because they’re fed up with messy politics, she said.
Turnout is traditionally low for primaries with only the most loyal party voters turning out. It’s problematic for many lawmakers because many Kansas races are decided in the primary.
A chamber official urged residents to speak up about what matters to them.
“It takes individuals within this room to talk about what’s important in Kansas,” said Brian Brown, who chairs the legislative committee for the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce. “People in Kansas are scared. People are considering whether to move out of the state.”
Rep. Rooker was speaking at the second of three legislative forums sponsored by the Prairie Village Post, the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and the City of Mission. The series concludes on April 9.