Legislative session could become ‘wild and wooly’
In a few words, State Sen. Sandy Praeger can sum up how the 2002 session of the Kansas Legislature might end up.
"It's just going to be wild and wooly," she said.
In Praeger's view, two issues will dominate the session, which begins Monday. Legislative redistricting promises to shake up which legislators could represent Eudora in the future.
"Redistricting just adds political flavor to the debate," she said.
Because redrawing Senate districts would happen when Praeger is up for re-election, she said it wouldn't affect her relationship with the Eudora constituency too much. Eudora could become part of the district now served by Kay O'Connor.
State Rep. Lee Tafanelli said the growth of population in the 47th District caused the district's physical size to shrink, but the plan he's seen keeps Eudora in his district.
"I do have some concerns over there," he said. "I'd like to see it tied in with the Douglas County district. Although there's a reliance on that K-10 corridor, I the think the interest there is more with Douglas County."
Like Praeger, the redistricting won't affect Tafanelli this term, but he said it could cause long-term changes in the state's public policy.
"Those out west took a big hit in terms of their legislative seats, and we've seen extensive growth along the K-10 corridor," he said. "I guess one of the main things I see out of this is we're going to shift out of this from a rural emphasis to more of an urban one."
Another huge issue will be budget cuts Gov. Bill Graves was forced to present in the face of declining state revenue. Praeger said the cuts "cannot stand." Graves recommends cutting money from education, social services, nursing homes and highway projects to offset decreased revenue.
Cutting money from education is an issue close to Praeger, a former teacher. She remembered fighting hard to increase per-pupil spending.
"All of the gains we've made will just go down the tube," she said.
The increasing average age of teachers and salaries that can't compete with jobs worry Praeger.
"It's the most demanding job I've ever had," she said. "I remember coming home at night in tears because I was so frustrated I couldn't reach a child."
Cuts to healthcare programs and nursing homes also concern her, especially with the annual turnover of certified nurse's aids.
"That's pretty hard to guarantee quality," she said. "People can make more flipping hamburger's at McDonalds."
Although Tafanelli said the Legislature would do what it could to keep money in education, he's not familiar enough with the governor's plan yet to give it his support or condemnation.
A member of the Kansas Army National Guard, Tafanelli spent the last few months working on homeland security at the Pentagon. He hoped to be back in Kansas Jan. 12, before the session starts.
"It is but one plan that I'm sure will surface through the session," he said. "My position is I want to do everything to keep the businesses we have in Kansas and help stimulate the economy while still meeting (the budget)."
Instead of making cuts, the governor needs to find other sources of revenue, Praeger said.
"In terms of priority, I'm going to have to put education above highways," she said. "Those roads can be built another year."
Moreover, the $426 million in cuts represent a one-time savings. The state should focus on long-term ways of raising revenue, like "sin" taxes, Praeger said. For instance, Arkansas has a soda pop tax to finance children's programs. Praeger said such a tax in Kansas might be a good idea in lieu of recent reports of a United States obesity epidemic, especially among children.
"I think we need to look at a lot of different things without going after income and property tax," Praeger said.
That could make gambling a hot topic this session, especially adding slot machines to Kansas' racetracks, she said.
Although Tafanelli said he thought gambling would get "serious consideration," he didn't want to predict what, if anything, would happen.
"I think the latest numbers I've seen is that it could possibly bring $50 million in revenue, which is nothing to sneeze at," he said. "When we're looking at a $400 million shortfall, it's not going to be the be-all, end-all of the Kansas fiscal situation."