Kansas at the Crossroads: Elections Matter. Elections Count
by Paul Johnson and Mary Fund
Kansas is at a crossroads. The state has embarked on a generational experiment of eliminating the income tax—a move that could threaten fundamental ‘core services’ involving education, transportation, social services, public health and public safety.
What is the future for funding public education? What damage will be done to the social service safety net? What happens to the medically uninsured and the medical providers serving the uninsured? What reductions will be made to water quality and water supply opportunities and protection? Will agricultural policy continue to favor corporate factory farms via tax breaks over independent, diversified family farms? Will Kansas expand local and regional food production and lower the dependence on imported food? Will Kansas find that right balance of essential revenues and ‘future investment’ public services?
KRC proposes that as you listen to campaign speeches and debates, and suffer through the claims made in all the interminable ads on radio and television, that you keep the following questions in mind. And whenever you get a chance, engage the candidates—gubernatorial and for the Kansas House of Representatives – in these and related questions. Also engage your friends and neighbors in discussions about these issues and make sure that you know where the candidates stand on these questions so critical to our future.
If the Kansas Budget has a deficit of $237.8 million by June 30, 2016 as projected in August by the Kansas Legislative Research Department, what actions will you take? The ABC’s of the Kansas Budget are fairly easy. 50% of the budget is spent on K-12 public education. With the school funding formula under intense scrutiny by the Kansas Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that significant cuts to school funding will be allowed. 20% of the Kansas Budget is spent on social services with 90+% of this spending on Medicaid – now called KanCare. Caseloads continue to increase. The most realistic goal of the three private managed care companies is to just lower the increase in medical care costs. 15% of the Kansas Budget is spent on higher education. Higher education has taken many reductions in the last five years while the demand for a better educated workforce increases and tuition costs have soared. The final 15% of the Kansas Budget funds everything else from prisons to parks to public health departments to water programs.
On the revenue side, significant growth in sales tax revenues and exponential growth in employment must occur quickly to offset the eventual elimination of the income tax that funded 30% of the Kansas Budget in the past. Cities and counties are caught in this revenue experiment. State government promises to assist local governments with revenue sharing– for roads and to offset the loss of property tax on business machinery– have been forgotten.
Sales tax and property tax are the primary funding sources for cities and counties. These are the most regressive taxes compared to the state income tax. To maintain essential public services and offset declining revenues from the State, cities, counties and school districts may have no choice but to increase sales and property taxes while state lawmakers forsake and deny any responsibility.
Should the 50-Year Vision for Water in Kansas be primarily water supply oriented or primarily a conservation and stewardship plan? Water resource issues will become increasingly important in state politics. In October 2013, the State launched an effort to develop a “50-Year Vision Plan for Water In Kansas”. The Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas Water Office staff spent much of the last year traveling the state meeting with stakeholders—that is you and me– to solicit input for this plan.
On July 1, they issued the first draft of the plan and will release a final plan November 12 at the annual Water and the Future of Kansas Conference. The current draft is oriented to increasing water supplies to supplement or replace the declining Ogallala Aquifer and solving the problems of sedimentation in the state’s major reservoirs that provide water for population centers. The 35,000 water rights in Western Kansas are over-pumping the Ogallala by a factor of three to five times a sustainable rate. There are over 2 million acres in Western Kansas under center pivot irrigation growing feed grains – primarily corn. Loss of that water promises certain change to the economy built on non-renewable water.
A proposal to build an ‘aqueduct’ to transport overflow Missouri River water 300 miles to western Kansas is being given serious consideration and promotion from some western Kansas interests, although it would cost billions of dollars. Questions of who would pay and who would benefit loom large. Also how would this be viewed by other downstream states?
Such a transfer would start with examination of the state’s interbasin transfer law, looking for ways to streamline its implementation perhaps via smaller transfers, such as the one for the City of Hays from south central Kansas water rights.
The state reservoirs were built without sufficient upstream land management so now they are silting in faster than designed or expected. High grain prices the past 3 or 4 years have resulted in not only removal of grass buffer strips and planting right up to the stream banks, but a record amount of grassland and pasture acres have been plowed under for annual crop production. All of this increases the potential for erosion and sedimentation downstream.
No one has a realistic cost for dredging major reservoirs like Perry or Milford and how this would be funded. Since two-thirds of all Kansans draw municipal water from these reservoirs, water bills could increase substantially.
The current draft vision emphasizes protecting and building the economy by focusing on supply. But a vision emphasizing conservation and natural resource protection is just as critical because it too is a source of water supply and protects the quality needed for meeting economic needs. Factor in changing climate patterns, and planning and building expensive structural solutions becomes more complex. Conservation and learning to live within one’s water means may well be the challenge of the future.
Will you support full funding of the existing State Water Plan? Kansas has had a water planning process and a statewide water plan since 1985. By state law, the State Water Plan (SWP) should receive $6 million from the State General Fund and $2 million from the lottery funds annually but this funding has been deferred the last five years. The SWP has declined from $25 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 to $14.9 million in FY 2015. The pesticide and chemical fees – that fund a portion of the SWP – are now frozen for the next three years. The Kansas Water Office has issued $25 million in bonds to start dredging John Redmond and fund cost-share soil sedimentation projects up stream but the payment for these bonds must now come out of a declining SWP. The result is continual reductions to existing water conservation and cost share soil management assistance programs. How can we discuss a 50-Year Vision Plan if we can’t or won’t fund the existing state water plan?
Will you support legislation to eliminate any restrictions on corporate farming in Kansas including the elimination of the county option to decide the siting of corporate swine and dairy confined animal facilities in their county? In the 2013 Kansas Legislative session, the Kansas Department of Agriculture proposed legislation to eliminate all restrictions on corporate farming in Kansas.
Kansas is one of eight states that have restrictions on corporate ownership of swine and dairy facilities without county commission or county voter approval. These restrictions apply to corporations such as Seaboard or Tyson but do not apply to family farm corporations. 19 counties in Kansas have voted to restrict corporate swine facilities, pointing to environmental and quality of life concerns for county residents. No counties have voted to restrict corporate dairies. Kansas had 5,600 dairies in 1980 and today there are 400 dairies with 20 mega-dairies having 65% of all dairy cows. Kansas had 13,500 hog farms in 1980 while today there are less than 1,400 hog farms with 311 large hog farms accounting for 95% of all pork sales.
Would you support the retention, the expansion or the repeal of the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard? In 2009, the Kansas Legislature established a renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) for the major electric utilities in Kansas. The RPS mandates that 20% of the peak electrical generating capacity will be provided by renewable energy by 2020.
Over the last five years, there has been significant expansion of large wind farms and the major electric utilities are all very close to meeting this standard. More expansion will come if the federal production tax credit for wind is renewed and the electricity grid is expanded to handle the new power production.
While industrial scale wind farms have received most of the attention, the expansion of solar electricity for homes and businesses is considerable. The cost of solar panels has declined dramatically. Solar companies and banks are now teaming up to offer affordable financing plans. The Kansas Legislature passed a new law establishing the rules and electric rates between the utilities and the home generator. The policy is called ‘net metering’ and it dictates the electric rates for home generators and the electric rates a utility will pay for extra power generated and sold to the utility.
Solar electric panels generate power on the hottest days when the extra power is most needed to offset air conditioning demands. Germany has been a great leader in solar energy and at times this past year solar energy supplied 75% of the nation’s electric demand. Wind systems and solar panels require no water while fossil fuel plants are second only to irrigators in water demands.
Summary: The right to vote is fundamental. Elections must be a participatory exercise. Only 22% of the eligible voters cast a ballot in the August primary.
Of the 125 Kansas House members, 50 have already been selected in the primary or had no opponent. The remaining 75 Kansas House races will make a big difference in setting the agenda for the 2016 Kansas Legislative session. The 40 Kansas State Senators are not on the ballot until 2016 except for the filling of two seats of retiring Senators. The biggest battle will be over the statewide races and particularly the election of a Governor. The political and economic future of the state is before each voter. Elections count. Elections matter.
From Sept-October 2014 Rural Papers