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Constituents sound-off to legislators: No consensus for solutions

Managing editor

It was a packed meeting room Saturday morning when about 40 people crowded into the Hillsboro city building to hear reports from Senator Jim Barnett and Representative Bob Brookens.

At the conclusion of the legislative coffee, Barnett asked whether the state should take stimulus funds to balance its budget and continue programs.

Barnett explained the countries of China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others had been buying our debt but can no longer do this. In order for the country, and the state, to continue to provide existing programs and services, more money would have to be printed.

He then asked those in attendance if they supported the state accepting federal stimulus funds.

It appeared from observers that more opposed the state’s acceptance of the funds.

Barnett started the presentation by showing a chart of receipts and expenditures the state has incurred the past several years.

There will be a $1 billion shortage if spending continues, Barnett said. The total budget is $13 billion.

“School finance and economy are parts of the problem,” he said.

Barnett continued that the 2009 budget had to be cut to be balanced which recently was accomplished. However, with the cuts, education was cut $33 per student.

Congress currently is working on the 2010 budget which begins July 1.

“We cannot have a billion dollar deficit,” he said.

Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as a stimulus package, providing $130 million for K-12 education, Barnett said. The bill also will include funding for higher education, including private institutions, a total of $82 billion during the next two years.

There also is a staggering $400 million on the table for Medicare, providing hundreds of millions of dollars for the state to access.

“If the economy doesn’t pickup, we’re going to be right back where we are now within two years,” Barnett said.

The leading cause of bankruptcy, Barnett said, is medical debt. He talked about cost-saving measures such as electronic medical files so patients do not have to have the same testing performed each time they see a different doctor.

Barnett also supported HIV testing for pregnant women and electronic monitoring of the sale of over-the-counter medications used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Other issues are highways, coal-fired plants, and clean energy alternatives.

“If we do certain things we can access the stimulus package,” Brookens said. “I want progress to continue to be made” and not go backward.

He cited the advancements of special education and students being tested for yearly progress — with 82 percent showing adequate progress.

“The infusion of money has helped,” Brookens said.

He asked the group, “Where do we cut?” Even with stimulus money, the state will continue in the red.

Brookens said he is serving on three committees — education, judiciary, and corrections and juvenile justice.

On the corrections and juvenile justice committee, members are working on the realignment of penalties. Sentencing should be proportional to the crime. Brookens used the example of the difference in battery sentencing for hitting an individual, hitting a law enforcement officer, and hitting a child.

Another important issue, is rehabilitation or at the least, “habilitating” those who have not been nurtured.

“Those who are incarcerated will be back in their communities,” Brookens said. During the past several years, Brookens said the rate of recidivism has drastically been reduced.

He continued that past attitudes have been to lock-up juveniles because officials did not know what to do with them. The question remains of what to do with them after being released from custody.

“You can’t rehabilitate someone who has never habilitated,” Brookens said. He said courts also have taken the lead by providing treatment to drug users even before they enter jail or prison.

How do we fund these programs?

“We don’t know,” Brookens said.

The judiciary committee is considering ways to restructure the Kansas Supreme Court. The proposed change would take a non-partisan process and make it political by allowing the Speaker of the House to make appointments, Brookens said.

Consolidation of school districts are not going to be forced this year and Brookens said it needs to be voluntary. There were three bills introduced and they all have been killed, he said.

“I want to encourage consolidation but do it with a carrot and not a stick,” he said. Brookens continued that he understood consolidated school districts, coming from Westmoreland which eventually was consolidated with another school district.

Questions from constituents

How much of a sales tax increase would be necessary not to use stimulus funds? One-half of a percent?

“A half cent increase wouldn’t do it,” Brookens said.

“A rough estimate would be a five percent increase,” Barnett said. “What would a tax increase do to the economy? How would it effect businesses and consumers? In Kansas, no one has said ‘Let’s raise taxes’. We’re looking at ways to cut spending. This is not a good time to raise taxes.”

Bob Maxwell of rural Marion said he could see dire consequences if the state accepts the stimulus bill.

Brookens said there is one aspect to consider — the packages are not tied together.

“If we accept highway money, it does not mean we accept education money,” he said.

“This is more of a discussion going on in Washington,” Barnett said. “We’re at a time when we have never seen this many people out of work, banks closing — this is the worst since the Depression.

“Do we let market forces take care of it and government do nothing? Government is very much involved and taking proactive steps,” he said. “This will provide opportunities for jobs. We have to deal with realities.”

When a comment was made about coal-fired power plants being constructed in Holcomb, Barnett said legislators need to talk about all forms of energy.

“There is no technology to deal with CO2,” Barnett said, regarding the pollutants that would be emitted from a coal-powered plant. “We all will pay for it with higher utility bills.”

Brookens said he understood why a state official took it upon himself to regulate emissions but it didn’t make it right.

He said the official probably threw a “wrench” in the works to stop or at least slow down the process, which worked.

“There will be a strong EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) as a result of this,” Brookens said.

Herb Bartel of rural Hillsboro said at one time a national forest was trying to be established in the same area as a proposed coal-fired plant at Holcomb.

“Mother Nature had a different idea,” he said. Bartel continued there is a “boon” cycle with disasters that ultimately are determined by nature and legislators need to look at options that don’t cause more problems.

Is funding for Christian-based rehabilitation programs going to be cut?

“I don’t think so,” Brookens said. He continued that those programs typically are privately funded.

Barnett said treatment programs are funded by liquor tax.

Douglas Calan asked what employment was going to look like in a few years when he is ready to enter the work force?

Brookens suggested jobs involving science and math will continue to be in demand. Also jobs in technology and the health care industry will be desirable in the future.

Tony Epp of Goessel said paying for things “down the road” are here now. He said as a child, he listened to elders discuss the same issues as being discussed today.

Epp suggested the state cut 80 percent of its spending by giving schools to local communities. He also suggested closing SRS (Social Rehabilitative Services) and let communities take care of their own.

Lu Janzen of Parkside Homes of Hillsboro said it is too easy for some to receive unemployment.

“It’s costing us when nurses turn down jobs that pay $20-$22 per hour because they can receive unemployment,” she said.

Janzen continued that many health care/nursing facilities have to pay employees to do paperwork instead of caring for people.

“Some (state) department heads work hard to keep programs that do the most good but then there are those who threaten to cut at the wrong end,” Brookens said.

“Fundamental changes in the nation is a lot more government,” Barnett said. “Is it good or bad? We all need to be thinking about that. We’re going to see more government in our lives. We need highly-effective people elected to office.”

Last modified March 4, 2009

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