Thank you for taking time to read my initial newsletter covering the first two weeks in Toepka – periodically throughout the legislative session, I will be posting and e-mailing out updates regarding my activities in Topeka. I hope you find them informative.
As for the first week, which concluded last Friday, below is a rundown of our activities, and some early indication of the topics we’ll be tacking in 2013:
New Class of Legislators Sworn In
On Monday, January 14, I was sworn in as Senator for District 11, along with all of my colleagues. It is a great honor to serve you in Topeka, and I had the pleasure of having my family present on the first day. It was also nice to see the Capitol interior nearly finished, which will be great for visitors who want to tour. We formally elected Senator Susan Wagle as our President, and she will be the first woman Senate President in our history. I look forward to working with her and the rest of my colleagues towards making Kansas a prosperous place to live and start a business.
I will be serving on the following committees:
I look forward to providing you updates about our activities throughout the session.
- Ways & Means
- Assessment and Taxation
State of the State
Governor Sam Brownback delivered his annual “State of the State” address on Tuesday, January 15, and he laid out a bold legislative agenda. Some items of note that I particularly agreed with included:
- Judicial Reform. Currently an interest group – attorneys – completely controls one branch of our government. There are different ways to achieve reform in this area, including direct elections or a system modeled after the federal government.
- Income Tax Reductions. There will be momentum towards further reducing the state income tax over the next few years, in order to further encourage economic growth and put more money back in the pockets of Kansans.
- Ending Duplication in Government. Specifically in this area, the Governor proposed combining the Kansas Turnpike Authority into the Kansas Department of Transportation. I agree we need to end this kind of duplication throughout Kansas government.
- Two Year Budget. The Governor laid out his broad ideas for a two year budget that would keep our ending balances where they should be. I look forward to examining his proposal in depth. The good news is the Senate passed the concept of “Pay Go” this week, which means if an amendment is brought to the floor which raises spending, it must cut spending by an equal amount elsewhere in the budget. This is a positive step for our fiscal health.
For more than 20 years, the Kansas Legislature had debated education spending each and every year, constrained by the poorly-designed and unfair school finance formula which badly needs reform. However, despite that constraint, we have increased education spending over that same span, to where we now spend more than $12,000 per child in Kansas. We have not only spent more than ever before in real dollars, but also in dollars adjusted for inflation.
Despite that, a three-judge panel in Shawnee County this week ruled that the legislature must allocate a specific amount of money in the base-state-aid-per-pupil, which is only one portion of the overall spending we allocate each year. Setting aside the fact they ignored that reality, the most troubling part of the court’s decision was the fact they felt they had the authority to direct the legislature to allocate a specific amount of funding, which is clearly out of their constitutional purview.
While this ruling is going to be appealed by our Attorney General, there will be an effort to pass a Constitutional Amendment which clearly states that the right to appropriate funds lies solely with the legislature.
On a policy level, however, what the court’s decision assumes is that yet more money equals better performance in our schools, when there is no correlation. Kansas has been essentially flat in terms of our educational results, so it seems to me that yet another dramatic spike in funding – which would require a massive tax increase to support – would not cause a corresponding spike in performance.
Over the next few weeks, I will be providing more of my detailed thoughts on what needs to happen concerning education in Kansas.
The second week of the 2013 session was shortened due to the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and start of the state party convention in Hutchinson, Kansas. However, work continued as committees focused on a number of issues and legislation introduced last week. As of Friday, we’ve had 79 bills introduced in the Senate in just the first two weeks. At this point in the year, most of our work is concentrated in committees, where bills are being prioritized and vetted.
Once those bills emerge, you’ll begin to see more action on the Senate floor when the full body debates and votes on bills. I look forward to reporting on those items, which you can follow at www.kslegislature.org.
I do want to take some time to address some of the key issues that we’re wrestling with in Topeka, and provide some facts on each that may not be making their way into the press.
Kansas has the distinction of being the only state in the union in which the majority of those who select the nominees to be judges on the appellate level courts are part of an interest group, the Kansas Bar Association, which has no accountability to the people.
This system is in dire need of reform, and there are various proposals to do that, with the one most commonly being discussed being SCR 1601, which would model Kansas after the federal system.
I have laid out a more detailed explanation of judicial reform, which you can read by clicking here.
There has also been a great deal of discussion regarding the Governor’s proposal to further reduce income tax rates in Kansas, specifically the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction. While the details of the tax plan will eventually be worked out via the committee process and also on the floor of both houses, there may be some misconceptions about this proposal.
With concerns growing over the elimination of these deductions, it should be noted an average of 70 percent of Kansans use the standard deduction and will not be impacted in any way by the elimination of itemized deductions. Changes to itemized deductions at the state level do not impact federal itemized deductions, which are much larger and still available to Kansans eligible to itemize. Furthermore, the value of itemized deductions at the state level is greatly reduced by the value of large reductions in overall tax rates and significant increases in standard deductions.
Perhaps even more importantly, this is part of an overall plan to eventually eliminate the income tax in Kansas. At that point, there would be no tax to deduct mortgage interest from.
The goal here is to make Kansas as economically competitive as possible, particularly with our neighbors, and to put more money in the pockets of Kansas families. As this plan gets finalized in the committee process, I will communicate it to you.
I have also received some e-mails regarding the 2nd Amendment, wondering if there is legislation pending to fight the federal government’s encroachment on gun rights. As I have indicated, our focus needs to be on measures which actually go to the heart of the matter -- mental health, enforcing laws already on the books, etc. -- and not on politically motivated measures which do little to address the matter at hand, and place an undue burden on a constitutional right.
I am happy to report that there are steps being taken at the legislative level to protect those rights. I will pass on the progress once those measures emerge from the committee process.
In addition to the above, some other topics are moving to the front burner as well. We’ve also been busy confirming appointments by the Governor. For a review of those activities, visit this week’s legislative review by clicking here.
As always, you can contact me by emailing me at 785-296-7301 or at Jeff.Melcher@senate.ks.gov. I encourage you to do so.
Senator Jeff Melcher