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State is looking at $100 million shortfall this year

Managing editor

State Rep. J. Robert Brookens and State Sen. Jim Barnett were greeted Saturday by packed meeting rooms in Hillsboro and Marion.

Constituents asked questions regarding KPERS, health care reform, a pipeline exemption, and ways to balance the state’s budget.

Currently the state is looking at a $100 million shortfall this year and a $400 million shortfall next year. There were no easy answers given Saturday regarding ways to shore-up the budget.

Pipeline exemption

Talk turned to property tax exemptions for TransCanada as part of the Keystone Pipeline project in Marion County.

Brookens said he would advocate for a bill currently being proposed which would rescind the pipeline exemption.

Barnett, who voted for the exemption, said when the exemption was presented as part of a bill in 2006, support was centered around the desire to keep Kansas refineries open.

“They needed oil to stay open and this would give them access to oil,” Barnett said.

Cities, counties, and the state do give tax abatements and this was the case, he said.

“We wanted refineries to stay open and that’s what happened,” Barnett said. “We do this to bring business to Kansas.”

He continued that legislators may have been duped but said no one was perfect.

Barnett said the state could take back the incentives, including the tax exemption or hold the company to the original agreement of providing oil products to Kansas refineries.

Brookens and Barnett attended a meeting Feb. 24 with pipeline executives to discuss the Keystone pipeline project.

In that meeting, information was divulged regarding business activity in the 10 counties affected by the pipeline construction.

Information for Marion County indicated that more than $38 million was going to be spent for the project with a gross product of more than $18 million. There were going to be 252 jobs created with a total income of $13 million.

Local government revenue during construction for Marion County was estimated at $202,810. The percent value of cumulative property taxes during the lifetime of the operation was nearly $60 million in Marion County, based on a 100-year operational life after the 10-year exemption ended.

Health care reform

Kansas has a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering lawsuits toward physicians and some politicians are wanting to see it changed.

“This is a huge tool for Kansas doctors,” Brookens said. “I don’t want to see it removed.”

“Everyone should have access to medical treatment,” Barnett said.

He suggested insurance reform so people with pre-existing conditions have access to treatment. He also wants to see torte reform. Currently physicians have to order testing to protect themselves from lawsuits. Testing should be done when needed not because of protocol, Barnett said.

“I’m afraid the government and bureaucrats will come between patients and doctors,” he said. “The more we believe we’re entitled, the weaker we become as a nation.”

Medicare has enabled many rural hospitals, including those in Marion County, to continue operating.

“I opposed a bill that would have taken $500 billion from Medicare,” Barnett said. “Until we address health care costs, we can’t fix it.”

Education funding crisis

Currently 50 percent of the state’s budget goes toward education. Barnett said the number-one goal of government is to fund education.

Concerns were expressed that cutting school funding in the middle of the year makes it difficult for school boards to provide the necessary services. It also becomes difficult when teachers are hired for a year and the school districts are required to give notice to teachers by May if they are not going to be retained for the next year.

In Marion, Myrta Billings, a Marion High School teacher, said when students are not properly educated, they are not prepared for the job world.

“You are hurting the state’s economy when you cut back funding to schools,” she said. “We are cutting to the bone. We’re becoming more like baby-sitters than educators.”

KPERS funding

A report was released in February that indicated Kansas was next to the last in the U.S. in providing state funding for its retirement program for state and school employees. Why?

Barnett cited four reasons for the current condition of the retirement fund — markets are down, the fund is underfunded, money was previously drawn from the fund to balance the state’s budget, and teachers haven’t fully funded it.

“There is a 60 percent shortfall,” Barnett said. “More money needs to be put in it. If the rules are changed, they need to be implemented at that beginning of a program.”

Other concerns and comments

Brookens and Barnett agreed that raising taxes was probably inevitable.

“Most people believe a good tax is when somebody else pays,” Brookens said, referring to cigarette and beer taxes.

Surveys have been sent by Brookens to constituents in District 70. To date, more than 700 have been returned and Brookens said he expected more.

Last modified March 3, 2010

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