Today, the 2016 Kansas Legislative Session was gaveled in. There are a number of issues facing our state that remain either unresolved or just partially resolved from the last session. Among those issues are a long-term solution for state spending and for balancing our budget, a new school finance formula, judicial selection reform, and ensuring we remain steadfast in the protection of our constitutional liberties.
On state spending and revenue, you will recall that last session the Kansas Legislature adopted a balanced budget that required an increase in the state sales tax and an increase in the cigarette tax, but preserved the income tax cuts, enacted a property tax lid on local governments, and maintained our exemptions for some small businesses. Though there was some good in the legislation, on balance I felt obligated to vote against the measure.
Regardless of one's stance on that particular plan, there is no question that our revenue and spending situation must continue to be addressed. On that front, we look forward this week to the release of a report from an efficiency study that the Legislature authorized and has been conducted the past several months. That study should not only identify ways for us to cut spending, but also ways that the services that we do offer can be offered in a way that is more efficient and more effective for Kansans.
In addition, it is my belief we need to continue to take a serious and methodical look at the many sales tax exemptions that currently exist under Kansas law. While some of these exemptions have merit, many need to be re-justified in order to continue. After this review is complete, I believe not only will our revenue problem be partially addressed, but that we may be able to lower the overall sales tax for all Kansans.
Finally, we must reject any attempts to grow government, including the continuing push to expand Medicaid. For a good summary article on why Medicaid expansion is a bad idea for any state, click here for an article in Forbes or read this article in the Wall Street Journal (requires subscription).
We must also resist any efforts to eliminate the property tax lid we adopted last session. Local government is often where the tax burden increases the most, and a cap ensures accountability and that growth will be in line with the rate of inflation and the growth of population, and no more.
On education, work will continue this session on developing a new school finance formula. As you know, last session we repealed the outdated, unpopular, and unworkable school finance formula from 1992 and replaced it with a temporary system of block grants while we work on a new formula.
While there are many stakeholders at the table who will have a say in the new formula, I believe it is critical that several principles are part of any new formula, including:
1. Maximum flexibility for local school districts. In the old formula, there were funding "silos", where certain money could only be spent in a certain way, and that was done away with under block grants except for KPERS, special education, and debt service. This is imperative for fiscal responsibility, but also provides local school districts the power and flexibility they need to ensure every possible dollar reaches the classroom. In turn, that gives you, the school district patron, more of a direct say in how those education dollars are spent.
2. The dollar should benefit the child, not the bureaucracy. Too often in the past, our system has been based on the system itself, not the child. A school district's specific funding was often determined by who could tweak the finance model so they could receive more funding under the complicated weightings. We must not return to weightings and instead ensure that the education dollar follows the child.
3. It should be stable, but not permanent. One problem with the old formula is that it was devised in 1992 and was constantly being tweaked and altered, so too few people understood exactly how it worked. Nearly everyone agreed it was a poor formula, but it was very difficult to repeal due to special interest groups, but we finally achieved it last year. A new formula must have stability and sustainability, but it also needs to be reviewed every few years to ensure it is working. The new formula should have a sunset after a period of a few years.
4. Keep funding adequate, but not out of control. The Kansas Constitution requires each child receive a suitable education, and that requires adequate funding, but we must not confuse adequacy with over-spending or meeting demands of interest groups who continually claim increased taxes are needed to fulfill their agenda. Currently, more than 50% of our state budget goes to K-12 education.
5. We must pursue innovation and choice. Any long-term solution on education in Kansas must not focus just on the funding aspect, but it should include ensuring a child is not stuck in a system that does not work for them. We must continue to incentivize innovation and also offer parents choices for their children. Whether it is expansion of our innovative school districts legislation, the pursuit of pilot scholarship programs, or other forms of choice, we must be willing and ready to pursue new ideas so our children can learn.
On judicial selection, I believe there will be a renewed effort to pass judicial selection reform for the Kansas Supreme Court this session. I was pleased that in my recent survey, a vast majority of respondents favored either the federal model for judicial selection (in which the governor would select a nominee, subject to confirmation in the Senate) or at the very least, a reform to the current commission so it brings accountability and transparency to the selection process. Only a small minority favored the current system, in which the selection process for the leadership of an entire branch of government is essentially controlled by an interest group.
Due to the fact it requires a change in the Kansas Constitution, any change to the selection of Kansas Supreme Court justices will require a 2/3 vote of each House. In a past session, this was achieved in the Senate, but the votes did not materialize in the House. I believe a vote must be taken to get people on the record, so even if it fails, the people know where their legislator stood on this critical issue.
On protecting your liberty, there is no question that our liberties remain under assault by the left, including the federal government and the courts. Most fundamental to this is the protecting of religious liberty. No matter where you stand on the core issues of marriage and family, surely most of us can agree that one should not have to choose between their livelihood and their faith. In 2013, efforts to pass religious liberty protections in Kansans were hijacked by the liberal press. Now, after two more years of our liberty eroding, there will be a renewed call for reform in this area.
There will be many other issues that will also dominate this session. I look forward to reporting our progress on these issues.