Last Friday Kansas State Representative Pete DeGraaf, a Republican from Mulvane, updated members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the status of the Kansas budget and other legislative matters. He appeared with Representative Don Myers, a Republican from Derby.
DeGraaf was appointed to the legislature at the end of the 2008 session to fill the vacancy created when Ted Powers died. DeGraaf was elected to a full term in November 2008. He serves on the important House Appropriations Committee.
“Americans are awaking up, and they’re not liking the shift to the left,” DeGraaf told the audience. Even in Washington, politicians are recognizing that people are upset.
Locally, he said that the budgetary problems in Kansas provide an opportunity to cut government, “not only in scope, but in real funding and numbers.” Government has grown rapidly in Kansas, and the current situation provides an opportunity to evaluate our priorities, to decide what’s critical and what isn’t.
Speaking about the current budget, DeGraaf said that K through12 education was cut 4.7%, when considering base state aid per pupil. But when considering overall funding, school budgets were not cut at all due to the impact of federal and local funding.
Furthermore, he said that schools put millions into savings accounts — the unencumbered funds that the Kansas Watchdog has uncovered.
Since K through 12 school spending — which is about half the state’s general fund spending — was cut so little, large cuts were made in other areas. Some social service agencies such as Comcare were cut by 52%, he said. Facilities like state hospitals and juvenile detention centers may be closed, potentially releasing predatory offenders back on the streets.
From a legislative perspective, he said the pressure comes from a “highly-paid, energetic lobby, K through 12.” He described the high-pressure, nasty emails — complete with misspelled words — he receives from school administrators.
DeGraaf said he appreciated the Sedgwick County legislative platform with its positions advocating for state hospital beds and funding for developmentally disabled people. There are 2,000 people on a waiting list in Sedgwick County alone, he said.
DeGraaf recommended using KansasVotes.org to keep up with the voting record of members of the Kansas House and Senate.
For the upcoming Kansas legislative session, DeGraaf said that the budget deficit that legislators will have to overcome could be as much as $500 million.
The affordable airfares program — the subsidy paid to AirTran Airways to provide cheap air service in Wichita — is important, he said, and we in Wichita and south-central Kansas need to make sure that legislators from northeast Kansas realize that.
DeGraaf said the tea party movement is an encouragement.
DeGraaf’s assessment of the state’s fiscal troubles as an opportunity to re-examine the role we want Kansas state government to play is spot-on. Other legislators — even Democrats such as Kansas Senator Chris Steineger with his ideas for redesigning Kansas government — have also recognized this window of opportunity. Unfortunately, the naked self-interest of the school spending lobby, particularly the Kansas National Education Association or KNEA, the teachers union) and the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), makes it very difficult to rationally discuss state spending.
Even such basic reforms such as zero-based budgeting are difficult to achieve. Answering a question from the audience, DeGraaf described how an amendment requiring this never went anywhere in the last session. DeGraaf said that he’s concerned that there is not enough manpower (legislative staff) to do zero-based budgeting.
Readers of this blog will recognize that I don’t agree with everything DeGraaf supports. His support of what he termed the “manipulated competition” that the AirTran subsidy brings to the Wichita airport is something that I have opposed, and will continue to oppose.