Taxes, schools, and health, oh my

If you've been paying even the slightest attention to politics in the past few months, you're dizzy from your head spinning so much. Between national and local news, broad challenges to civil and human rights, pointed attacks on women's health or transgender children, and a confusing array of competing proposals to fix Kansas, it can be overwhelming. Let us try to sort it out for you.

The big priorities in 2017: taxes, schools, and health

The biggest change this year is the presence of enough moderate clout in the Kansas Legislature to introduce and push good ideas, not just to try and prevent bad ones. This year is about fixing problems. To that end, we have been paying special attention to the three biggest issues: the Kansas tax and budget policy, public education funding, and expansion of health care for more Kansans. Of course, there's a lot more going on, too, and none of it is less important just because it isn't one of these. We continue to track and support or oppose issues important to all Kansans. See more below.

Tax and budget policy

Last week, the Kansas Senate pushed three bills out to begin the discussion on fixing both this year's budget hole (still in the $300 million range) and future revenues. But when it came time to debate on the Senate floor, leadership could not find the votes for one aspect, cutting K-12 public schools another 5%, or $128 million. They pulled the bills before debate even began, and announced that they would work no other subjects until the budget/tax policy was done. Then, the House Committee on Taxation did something odd, they passed a reasonable tax proposal that rolls back the LLC exemption, raises taxes and returns three tax brackets (Brownback's 2012 tax cuts reduced the brackets to two) so that lower income Kansans can be taxed at lower rates than higher income Kansans, while still protecting the middle class. It also rolls back Brownback's "March to Zero" which would force Kansas to lower taxes anytime budgets were met. That bill waits to be heard on the House floor. This week, a Senate version of this bill receives a hearing, and MainStream is testifying in support.

So, Brownback's allies in the Legislature tried to "fix" the tax and budget problems with more cuts, and got their hands slapped by legislators sent by Kansans to actually fix problems. Now, better plans will have their chance to be heard.

School finance plans

There are three possible plans currently floating about the Legislature regarding how to finance public education. The existing system, the block grants, are set to expire this year, and have already been declared unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court. One plan would extend block grants another year (despite their unconstitutionality) to test a finance plan that includes "performance" targets for districts. For the record, performance targets are controversial because children are not automatons to be compared and discarded if they don't measure up. Another plan in the wings is supported by Brownback hardliners (including ex-legislators still hanging about Topeka) and hands funding decisions to the Brownback Administration. But on Wednesday, a compromise plan from moderates and Democrats is receiving a hearing. It would implement a formula to account for district differences, while tying dollars to inflation and price indexes to ensure steady funding. It also includes funding for early childhood education, because investing in Kansas' children is a surefire way to improve Kansas' economy. MainStream is testifying in support of this bill.

So, plans to continue underfunding schools and defrauding Kansas taxpayers are alive and well, but a comprehensive, complete, and effective plan to properly support our public schools does exist and is moving forward.

Health care expansion

Last week saw three days of testimony on the expansion of health care to cover 150,000 more Kansans, using millions of dollars that Kansas turns away every day. On the day proponents of this compassionate plan were to testify, the Statehouse was packed with supporters, all of them patients, caregivers, hospitals, doctors, parents and families. Surveys show that over 80% of Kansans support expanding health care. On the day opponents were to testify, the Legislature heard from a handful of think tanks and Brownback loyalists. The contrast was striking. A vote could come this week.

MainStream testified in support of this bill.

And all the other things...

While the tax and budget plans will affect everything else in Kansas, they are by no means the only topics that have come up at the Legislature.

Last week, a hearing was held on a bill to require doctors at women's health clinics to present minutiae on their training, history, hospital privileges, and a host of other statistics. The bill's ridiculousness was highlighted by the requirement that it be printed in 12 point Times New Roman. The committee, before passing it out to the full body, made one change. They added that the document must be printed on white paper, ostensibly lest the clinics print black ink on black paper, rendering it unreadable. Because that's what they would do?

This week sees the introduction of two bills to require Kansas entities to work with the Department of Homeland Security in enforcing immigration detentions. One forces the Kansas Highway Patrol, without any consultation, to run down and detain anyone fingered by ICE. The other bill forbids any Kansas city, community, or agency from declaring itself a sanctuary, a non-binding status that merely indicates they desire to work with their communities, instead of against them. These are divisive, cruel measures Kansans do not support.

On the positive side, efforts we support include returning due process to teachers, a measure that would support effective teaching; lowering the sales tax on food, which would improve low income and rural lives and health; and bills to introduce same-day voter registration, actually improving voting rights.

We will continue to track these and other bills on our KS Legislative Tracker.

Remember to do more than vote: listen, learn, engage, and speak out.

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