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Make New Year’s resolutions for state lawmakers

H. Edward Flentje
Special to Gannett Kansas

Welcome to 2020 and join me in offering Kansas lawmakers New Year’s Resolutions to guide their work in the upcoming legislative session.

Focus on Problem Solving: Many state lawmakers run for office in order to address issues of concern to voters, such as health care, poverty, criminal justice and gun safety, to name but a few. Other lawmakers spend more of their time mouthing the talking points of special interests allied with their party affiliation. The difference is often obvious, and Kansans should applaud those lawmakers engaged in problem solving, rather than partisan posturing.

Keep Taxes and Spending in Balance: Kansas lawmakers abandoned the notorious tax experiment in 2017 and began to restore state finances. As a result, state tax revenues exceeded spending last fiscal year by $335 million. In the current year, however, spending was increased to address school finance and repair neglected state services, such as prisons and child welfare, and is now projected to exceed revenues by $428 million. Still, a healthy balance of $677 million is estimated for the beginning of the next fiscal year. The condition of state finance has not been this sound since the beginning of the Great Recession, and lawmakers should be wary of new spending or tax cuts that throw financial discipline off track.

Assure School Funding Reaches At-Risk Children: Public education represents the state’s highest priority but still falls short in reaching students disadvantaged by poverty, race, and ethnicity. Last year, lawmakers boosted school funding to comply with constitutional requirements and should now turn their attention to assuring that added funds reach children at risk. They represent the next generation of Kansans, and their success is essential to the state’s future.

Leverage Available Federal Dollars: Kansans and Kansas businesses send over $25 billion in taxes each year to the U.S. treasury and benefit from that outflow in multiple ways. However, Kansas state government ranks near the top among the 50 states in refusing available federal dollars. For example, state lawmakers’ refusal to extend Medicaid coverage to 130,000 low-income working Kansans and their children has cost the state $3.8 billion over the last five years. Kansas should take advantage of federal dollars and extend Medicaid.

Protect Vulnerable Children: In 2011 state lawmakers began restricting federal assistance to the state’s poorest families, and as a result vulnerable children became their victims. Three-fourths of the 70 percent cut in income assistance fell upon children. Half of the 30 percent reduction in food assistance hit children. Lawmakers should rethink these ill-advised restrictions to protect those children least able to help themselves.

Keep Politics Out of State Courts: Kansas voters have repeatedly shown their preference for keeping partisan politics out of state courts. Over 60 years ago they adopted constitutional provisions providing for the selection of Supreme Court justices based on qualifications not politics. Further, they have consistently voted to retain justices appointed through nonpartisan selection. Strong voter preference has not stopped special interest groups from trying to politicize state courts, and lawmakers should remain vigilant in preserving nonpartisan judicial selection and protecting an independent judiciary.

Use Caution before Issuing New Debt: Kansas taxpayers are currently paying down over $4 billion in state debt that was pushed to record levels in 2016. Tax-supported state debt as a percent of personal income continues at a level three times that of surrounding states. State lawmakers should avoid borrowing that pushes current obligations onto future generations and exercise caution before issuing new state debt.

These resolutions represent a challenging agenda for lawmakers and should give Kansas voters a scorecard for assessing legislative performance in upcoming elections.

Ed Flentje is an emeritus professor of political science at Wichita State University. He can be reached at ed.flentje@gmail.com.