At this week’s meeting of the South-Central Kansas Legislative Delegation, the “occupy” crowd — those inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests — made its presence known as members arrived early to sign up to speak. Below, Paul Soutar of Kansas Watchdog reports on the topics that were important to speakers at the meeting. Refreshingly, the “occupy” supporters followed established procedure and signed up to speak. It has been the practice of various “occupy” groups — even in Wichita — to disrupt events, demanding their first amendment rights to speak, often using the “mic check” method of communication.
Legislative Forum Foretells Challenging 2012 Lawmaking Session
By Paul Soutar of Kansas Watchdog, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
Comments from 53 speakers at a forum in Wichita signal a busy and contentious legislative session is just ahead. About 200 showed up for the South-central Kansas Legislative Forum at the Sedgwick County Courthouse Tuesday night.
A total of 22 state senators and representatives attended, most staying through the three hours of comments from constituents that highlighted a deep divide between fiscal conservatives and proponents of bigger government.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, chaired the meeting and set strict time limits on speakers. Legislators generally did not respond to comments or occasional barbs from speakers.
American Legislative Exchange Council
The most common theme addressed by speakers was the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in state policy making. Detractors at Tuesday’s forum complained about undue corporate influence in passing legislation that favors their interests.
ALEC’s website says its mission is, “to advance the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector, the federal government, and general public.”
Several speakers opposing ALEC identified themselves as participants or supporters of Occupy Wall Street protests.
A smaller number of speakers pointed out the role of business in creating jobs. Bob Weeks, who blogs at Wichita’s Voice for Liberty, reminded legislators of ALEC’s Rich States, Poor States report which shows Kansas is becoming less business friendly as surrounding states improve their tax climate.
Boeing Aircraft Company officials announced today it would cease operations in Wichita by the end of 2013. The move will eliminate about 2,000 jobs from the local economy.
According to Boeing employees present at the announcement, one reason cited for the decision was higher operating costs in Kansas. Some Boeing work, including aircraft modification and work on Air Force One, will move to San Antonio, Texas, where corporate tax rates are low and there is no individual income tax.
Several speakers addressed ongoing concerns about child protection officials removing children unnecessarily from homes. Kansas and Sedgwick County are among the nation’s worst performers in reuniting children with their families.
Marlene Jones, an activist against abuses in child protection and foster care, complained that legislators have not followed through on last year’s promise to create a committee to look into the issue.
Persistent reports of abuses in the foster care and legal system have been difficult to investigate because privacy law protects much of the information. Glen Burdue gave legislators a list of data that could be collected and investigated to evaluate allegations.
Jeff Brazill, who used to call the races at Wichita Greyhound Park, asked legislators to consider broadening gaming opportunities in the state. Wichita Greyhound Park closed in 2007 after Sedgwick County voters failed to approve slot machines at the track.
“The issue isn’t gaming, it’s here,” Brazill said. Kansas lottery tickets are available in Sedgwick County, and Kansas just opened a new casino in Mulvane on Dec. 26, just across the county line in Mulvane.
Paul Sutherland lives near the new casino and also asked legislators to expand gaming but not before cleaning up the state’s lottery and gaming activities.
“I tried to get the state to respect the law, they’re not,” Southerland told the panel. He said infrastructure is not ready for the casino opening; was paid for by taxpayer and not by the casino operator as promised, and that local government is operating in secret. He called the activity, “The most corrupt activity in our area.”
Rick Loveall, another supporter of reopening the greyhound park, claimed it would create about 500 jobs with no government support or subsidies. “Someone told me the best way to get it to pass is to ask for $25 million in subsidies. This time we don’t need it.”
Craig Gable, a Wichita restaurant owner, wants to allow gaming in a wider array of venues, “So it’s not just one guy making all the money.” He called for allowing the number of slot machines being based on the size of the business so even a small restaurant of garage could make a bit of money from gambling.
Spend more or spend less
A majority of speakers expressed a desire for the state to either restore recent funding cuts or spend more for various programs. Most offered no suggestions for increasing revenue. A few suggested keeping the 6.3 percent sales tax enacted in 2010 and slated to be reduced to 5.7 percent in 2013.
Todd said his recent door-to-door work gathering petition signatures shows citizens don’t understand the complex methods for using various subsidies and tax abatements, but they generally oppose such corporate handouts.
Todd and others recently gained enough signatures to require the Wichita City Council to seek voter approval before refunding 75 percent of the Ambassador Hotel’s guest tax for the hotel’s own use.
Coen also called for legislation against the practice of “pay to play” in which local government officials cast votes that benefit campaign donors. He said the practice is, “rampant legal corruption.”
Kari Ann Rinker, Kansas coordinator for the National Organization for Women, made an unusual plea for fiscal responsibility by asking legislators to stop spending time, energy and money on abortion legislation.
Mark Gietzen, with the Kansas Coalition for Life, asked that Kansas adopt heartbeat legislation that is working its way through the Ohio legislature. The bill would protect unborn children from the moment a heartbeat can be detected by stethoscope.
Revenue vs. environment
Fracking, the use of pressurized water to fracture rock and dramatically boost oil and gas extraction, has increased dramatically in the last year in Kansas. Proponents say wells can see a 1,000-fold increase in production through horizontal drilling and fracking.
Zack Pistora, the new Kansas lobbyist for Sierra Club, and a few other speakers called on legislators to limit the practice.
Music and humor
Laughter erupted as David Robbins produced copies of his 2010 Kansas income tax filing and regaled the audience with an ongoing saga of problems with the Kansas Department of Revenue.
According to Robbins DOR overpaid his refund by $232.23, which he returned in an amended tax return only to be told that he owed an additional $106. He’s now also fighting to have his filing’s donation to military relief restored after a DOR employee redirected it to meals on wheels without his permission.
This article was originally published at Legislative Forum Foretells Challenging 2012 Lawmaking Session .