By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Issues at the forefront of the new legislative session will include whether the state sales tax should continue at the current level, whether the transportation fund is safe, and whether teachers should be allowed to carry guns in schools, Southeast Kansas legislators said Friday.
Representatives Julie Menghini, Richard Proehl and Bob Grant, and Sen. Jake LaTurner presented their stances on those issues and others during the annual legislative send-off at the Pittsburg State University Alumni Center.
Menghini, D-Pittsburg, will return to Topeka after beating out challenger Michelle Hucke for the 3rd District seat. In 2010, Menghini was ousted by Terry Calloway, R-Pittsburg, after having served three terms.
She will serve on the House Transportation Committee, where she had six years of experience. Proehl, R-Parsons, who represents the 7th District, will chair that committee. Grant, D-Frontenac, who has served 20 years from the 2nd District, also will be a transportation committee member.
That could give the region some clout, some local leaders noted, when it comes to completing the four-lane expansion of U.S. Highway 69 from Fort Scott to the Oklahoma border.
“It’s past due,” Proehl said. “It should have been done years ago.”
LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, a freshman legislator representing the 13th District, said transportation is one of his priorities. He brings to the table four years of experience as a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan.
“The money is there, we just have to protect it,” LaTurner said. “I’m confident we can.”
Since 2000, Kansas lawmakers have withdrawn $1.4 billion earmarked for transportation improvements and used the money for such things as operations for the Kansas State Highway Patrol and state Medicaid programs. In 2011, losses to the highway fund were $190 million.
Proehl said he is concerned the Legislature could again rob from designated transportation funding to make up for shortfalls elsewhere.
“I’ll keep a close eye on it,” he said.
Proehl, who first was elected in 2005, is adjusting to a slightly new constituency after redistricting last year.
“I have some new people to try to get acquainted with this year,” said Proehl, who now serves Labette County except for Chetopa and the southeast corner of Montgomery County except for Coffeyville.
The state sales tax is scheduled to drop from 6.3 percent to 5.7 percent on July 1. The Legislature increased it two years ago in order to shore up the state’s budget during the recession.
Gov. Sam Brownback’s income-tax reductions that went into effect Jan. 1 are projected to create a shortfall of $295 million per year. If the Legislature approves Brownback’s proposal to continue the 0.6-cent sales tax increase, it could generate about $250 million per year.
LaTurner said he would not support keeping the sales tax in place.
“I campaigned on that,” he said. “For a border county it would be rough on us — a lot harder than the rest of the state.”
Proehl said he supports keeping the sales tax in place.
“It does fill a considerable hole, which is about $230 million,” he said. “I’m really not in favor of just extending it forever, I would like to see maybe a three-year or a four-year.”
Menghini will not support keeping the higher sales tax in place, she said.
“We made a promise to the people of Kansas when we put that on. We were in a global recession at the time ... ” she said.
“The financial crisis we’re in now is a self-inflicted wound. We didn’t have to be here. We made some choices last session to put ourselves in this position. I’m not saying that tax cuts can’t be a good thing, but tax cuts at the level they passed last session were irresponsible and now we’re going to pay the price for it.
“Sales tax is more volatile. It’s not as reliable for the state,” she said.
It would “unreasonable” to expect increases to K-12 and higher education funding, said LaTurner, who said he hopes it remains untouched.
Proehl said if the Legislature can keep education funding flat, “we’ll have had some success.”
Menghini said two studies commissioned by the Legislature have shown that education is not being funded at the appropriate level. Both studies cited put the appropriate level of funding at about $6,000 per student.
In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s school funding formula was unconstitutional. Lawmakers pledged a multiyear increase in funding of $1 billion, but declining state revenue in the past few years didn’t allow it, prompting 54 districts to file suit to restore it.
This school year, after a $40 million funding boost from state lawmakers last session, the base state aid per pupil is $3,838.
GUNS IN SCHOOLS
Proehl, who said he was against the concealed carry legislation passed in 2006, but ultimately voted for it because 86 percent of the people in his district were in favor of it, said he would have to closely look at any measure to allow teachers to carry guns in schools.
Grant, who noted that Crawford County middle and high schools employ resource officers, said he didn’t like the idea of teachers carrying guns. He would be in favor of additional funding for mental health.
LaTurner said he believed shootings are “a cultural problem,” and that schools should have increased security put in place and local control.
Friday’s legislative send-off at Pittsburg State University, an annual discussion of the issues, was sponsored by the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce.