Dahl, Barnett talk about state spending

Staff reporter

Too much spending and not enough money in the coffers.

That's the message Representative Don Dahl of Hillsboro sent to his constituents Saturday morning during the annual legislative coffee at the civic building.

Education, health insurance, and energy concerns were the topics Senator Jim Barnett chose to discuss.

Dahl began his opening statement by breaking some bad news that most probably already knew.

"We're in the hole this year and coming fiscal year," Dahl said bluntly. "We can't operate this way."

Dahl said the state's budget was strapped with no wiggle room.

"We can increase tasks or slow this down by decrease spending," he said.

Between tornadoes, flooding, and, most recently, devastating ice storms, the state's disaster fund is a disaster of its own. Only $15 million was allotted but there was more than $200 million in damages from the ice storms alone.

Dahl showed a chart of the state's massive nearly $6.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2008. Of that, nearly $6.1 billion of those funds are already earmarked for specific projects or expenses. Another $256 million is promised or mandated expenses, which leaves only $76 million for discretionary spending.

"You'll hear that the legislature doesn't care about the elderly or school because there's no extra funding," Dahl said, which isn't the case. "We're facing a difficult fiscal situation."

The reasons for the lack of money? The economy isn't as sound as it was.

Dahl said five or six years ago there was one of these types of talks where he quoted the Biblical story about seven years of prosperity and seven years of need.

"We (the state) should have put away funds during the good times but we didn't," he said.

Barnett began his opening statements by saying that education is the prime responsibility of the Kansas legislature. The lawmakers was coming to the end of a three-year plan for education funding.

"I want us to implement a multiple year (at least two years) funding plan," Barnett said, where schools can plan several years ahead, knowing the amount of allotted funds.

A bill that will increase the base amount schools receive per student has passed through the Senate and is waiting to be passed through the House of Representatives. The base would increase funding $59 per student for the next two years.

Other issues important to Barnett are health care, energy policy, and immigration issues.

"There are 300,000 uninsured Kansans," Barnett said, "which is far too many."

With the absence of health insurance there is a delay in diagnosing illnesses, and no prevention or wellness checks.

There needs to be a premium assistance program to help poor Kansans afford insurance, Barnett said. Medical cost controls are needed but the answer isn't government control, he continued.

Barnett said he believes in free markets in health care. Bankruptcy is a common occurrence for those without insurance.

On the topic of energy, Barnett had specific opinions.

"We have failed as a nation to become independent of energy production," he said. "Holcomb has caused a fire storm. We want cheap energy and a clean environment."

Barnett continued that there was a difference between weather and climate.

"We need to get through the conflict to reach the middle," he said, and concentrate on the health impact of global warming.

"Pregnant women can't drink water from most bodies of water in Kansas because of the mercury levels," Barnett said.

Barnett then shifted gears and said he co-sponsored a bill that will require employers to verify U.S. citizenship when hiring new employees.

"Are we a nation of laws or do we ignore our laws?" Barnett asked. "What are we going to do with 12 million illegal immigrants?"

Barnett said he supported a federal mandate regarding more stringent rules for issuing Kansas drivers' licenses.

"Kansas used to be an easy state for illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses," Barnett said.

Real ID was implemented and the number of immigrants seeking licenses in Sedgwick County went from thousands per week to 10s.

In response to Barnett's statements, Dahl asked who are the Kansans without health insurance? Are they workers caught between jobs?

Dahl also made it clear that he supported the development of a coal-fired energy plant.

"Large companies in Kansas require energy," Dahl said.

The Sunflower coal-fired plant at Holcomb was to be a $3.6 billion project which would sell some energy out of state.

"The plant would produce less mercury emissions than other plants currently operating in the state," Dahl said.

Energy rates will increase if another form of energy isn't allowed, Dahl said, and we'll have to pay an outside energy source to bring it in to Kansas.

There's been courting from a city in South Carolina in trying to attract Cessna of Wichita.

"If the price of energy goes up, there are a lot of companies that could move out of state," Dahl said.

Without a more aggressive energy policy, the petroleum plant at McPherson won't be expanded and some ethanol plants won't be built, he said.

An increase in taxes may be the only option if alternative energy sources are not allowed.

Dahl then asked the audience of 15 people, what the biggest health problem was in Kansas? One person responded, "obesity." Dahl agreed that obesity was one of the major health issues and it is preventable.

As far as global warming is concerned, Dahl said there has been a .5 degree increase anticipated in the next 10-15 years.

"Climate is cyclical," Dahl said. "Carbon increases follow an increase in temperature."

Questions and answers

Max Terman of Hillsboro asked if there was a national policy for alternative energy approved in the future, what would that do to coal-fired plants?

Barnett said carbon taxes would impact all aspects of production, not just coal-fired plants. Carbon off-sets needed to be examined.

"Wind energy is produced without carbon dioxide," Barnett said. Carbon off-sets should be encouraged.

Greenhouse gases retain heat and maintain climate temperatures, Barnett said.

"Man can influence those gases. I don't know what's ahead as temperatures continue to increase and impact our health," he said.

Barnett continued that there are eight energy plants in Kansas that are dirtier than the Sunflower plant that was proposed at Holcomb.

Dahl said he was concerned about the impact increased gas and fuel prices are having on the elderly and others on fixed incomes.

Are there any incentives available to encourage businesses to voluntarily reduce emissions? A carbon program already has been implemented.

"Tax credits are one way," Barnett said, which always can be done voluntarily.

He noted that in other countries, coal-fired plants are being built weekly.

"The U.S. should lead the way," Barnett said.

Dahl agreed.

"China is building one plant per week, India one every two weeks," Dahl said. "Jobs are going there. Once jobs flee, we never get them back."

Dahl also noted that those plants being built in other countries by far cause more pollutants than a coal-fired plant built in Kansas.

Hillsboro City Administrator Larry Paine commented that he recently attended a power pool meeting. He noted that coal-fire power costs three cents per kilowatt hour at a wholesale rate, wind power is six to seven cents wholesale, and nuclear was less.

"We're going to get priced out of being able to provide services to customers," Paine said. "We need coal-fired plants. We need them now."

He continued that wind energy is less expensive than it was 10 years ago.

"The more we build, the more effective we become," Paine said. "Officials need to take a look 50 years down the pike and figure it out for future generations and make sure this coal-fired generation occurs."

Jim Elliott of Hillsboro commented that more dollars are needed for education because there are fewer students in schools.

Funding schools and energy projects takes money.

"It's a 'Catch-22'," Dahl said. "Do we put more taxes on our businesses which could drive them out to other states?"

He continued that 90 percent of the proposed wind farms are by out-of-state companies.

Barnett commented that Kansas does not have a revenue problem but a spending problem.

"State sales tax revenue has been flat because consumers are spending more on gas," Barnett said.

And what about financial support for private education? Appropriations were given to meet nursing demands but did not include private colleges.

"You'll want to get directly in contact with key senators to ask for money," Barnett said.

"You're fighting against KU, K-State, and other state universities," Dahl said, adding it comes to down to a church and state issue.

He continued that the reality of the situation is that state universities have more lobbyists than private schools can afford.

Tabor College President Jules Glanzer said government likes to find a happy medium to solve problems.

"I don't agree," Glanzer said. "I don't want to take away from one for the other but to move forward. How can we solve problems so both can thrive?"

Dahl responded that everything is driven by budget and spending.