Brownback must push positive agenda in Kansas
The Kansas City Star
Gov. Sam Brownback is counting on the 2013 legislative session that begins Monday to stamp his agenda more firmly onto the map of Kansas.
Elections last year placed conservatives firmly in charge of the Legislature. They are eager to promote an agenda that could include more tax cuts and pushing the envelope on controversial social issues.
However, because of ill-advised income tax cuts that Brownback imprudently signed last year, Kansas is without sufficient revenues to fund schools and services at current levels. Budget writers must make up a gap of $267 million, and that’s assuming they spend all of a $470 million surplus from last year.
Still, a new start always brews optimism. Here are five things Brownback and the Legislature could do to move the state forward:
Close tax loopholes.
Kansas’ income tax and sales tax codes are rife with loopholes and omissions.
Brownback’s original income tax reduction plan proposed eliminating about two dozen of them, including for home mortgages, to offset the income lost to the state through tax cuts.
The bill he signed into law, however, only penalized the poor, withdrawing tax breaks for child- and-dependent care expenses and money that certain low-income people spent on food taxes. If the Legislature sticks with its draconian income tax cuts, it should seek a much fairer way of balancing them.
Expand Medicaid eligibility.
Raising the income threshold to qualify for Medicaid, as called for in the federal Affordable Care Act, would help about 127,000 currently uninsured Kansans gain the stability of a health insurance policy. The federal government would pay the full costs of the expansion for three years, and never less than 90 percent. That money would result in expanded health networks, jobs and a healthier population.
The Legislature must establish formal oversight of Brownback’s ambitious KanCare program, which hands off the medical care of poor, disabled and indigent elderly Kansans to private managed-care companies.
Help school districts.
A lower court panel on Friday ruled that Kansas’ funding for schools is unconstitutionally low. Instead of protesting, lawmakers should find a way to increase school funding and also expand the ability of school boards to raise additional revenues locally, within reasonable limits.
Improve dental care.
Kansas has a serious shortage of dentists. This should be the year the Legislature authorizes a new level of practitioner to fill some of the gaps. Some states are approving the certification of “registered dental practitioners” to be trained and licensed for some routine procedures, like filling cavities, that currently must be done by dentists.
And here are three things the governor and Legislature should not do this session:
Don’t preserve the sales tax increase for the wrong reasons.
Part of a temporary one-cent sales tax increase then-Gov. Mark Parkinson signed into law in 2010 is set to expire this year. Brownback has said he’d like to extend it, which would be acceptable if the money was used to protect schools and services for the poor and disabled from even worse cuts.
But some lawmakers want to extend the sales tax in order to lower income tax rates even further. That would be immoral. High sales taxes weigh heavily on the poor, who reap the least benefit from income tax cuts.
Don’t corral the judiciary.
Brownback and his allies want to do away with a nominating commission that screens candidates for statewide judicial vacancies and recommends finalists to the governor. Instead, they want the governor to nominate judges, subject to Senate confirmation. That is a recipe for cronyism and for undue executive influence over the judicial branch.
Lawmakers should consider remedial measures without fully dismantling a system that has kept the judiciary independent from political pressures.
Don’t limit potential.
A Kansas law allowing certain children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities comes under attack every year. Kansas’ immigrant population is a vital ingredient in the state’s growth and potential. Lawmakers should not discourage young strivers by pricing college out of their reach.