Everyone wants to see public education adequately funded, state Sen. Caryn Tyson said.
“I can’t imagine anyone in this room not saying that education is important and critical to us all,” Tyson, R-Parker, said at Saturday’s Legislative Coffee at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St. “ ... We’re all impacted by education.”
Education was the topic on many people’s minds at the first Legislative Coffee event — moderated by Richard Jackson, East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp. CEO — of the legislative session.
Three area lawmakers — Tyson, state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville — joined a packed audience, which included school superintendents, current and former school teachers and other residents concerned about education and other issues.
“It’s been about 15 years since I sat up here with any kind of authority, and the last time it was this crowded, we were talking about leash laws for dogs,” Finch said from the City Hall commission chambers, garnering laughter from the audience. Finch, a freshman lawmaker, previously served as an Ottawa city commissioner and Ottawa mayor.
Coffee topics included public education funding and teachers’ unions.
Tyson said the Legislature is taking a look at the school funding finance formula this year, but she wasn’t sure how in depth those talks would go. Her concern, she said, was in keeping rural schools in mind when discussing the equation.
“Rural Kansas is critical,” she said. “It’s the backbone. It’s who we are.”
Finch said he supported early childhood intervention programs, as well as programs to help keep talented and smart graduates in the state.
However, he said, the state already has much to be proud of when it comes to education.
“We certainly don’t have near the problems that other states do, and it’s something we need to be proud of,” he said. “Does that mean we can’t do better? Absolutely not.”
Jones said it’s important teachers and schools get the funds they need, but tough economic times call for tough talks.
“Now we find ourselves having to tighten the belt buckle a little bit and figure out how to make these things work,” he said.
One audience member asked about the legislators’ stances on House Bill 2023, concerning payroll deductions for public union members. The bill would prohibit employees’ organizations, or unions, from taking voluntary paycheck donations for political advocacy.
Tyson said she had reservations with the bill. As a taxpayer herself, she said, she didn’t want to limit anyone’s opportunity to give financially, but she also didn’t think private unions should be able to collect dues while public ones could not.
“I felt like that was a double standard and we shouldn’t be doing that,” she said.
Finch said he voted no on 2023, saying the bill could invite a lawsuit, which a state with a deficit of $700 million doesn’t need.
“Once you earn your paycheck, it’s your money to decide what to do with it,” Finch said.
Jones said he voted yes on the “paycheck protection” issue, citing an example of a constituent who wanted to support Jones financially, but not another opponent, which could happen by contributing to a PAC.
While education seemed to be the topic of the day, other issues surfaced, including KPERS, gun control and recent tax changes.
Roy Dunn, a Franklin County commissioner, asked the legislators about the governor’s approach to move toward a zero income tax.
“I think this is really concerning, not only to the county, but the school boards, too,” Dunn said.
With the passage of an “aggressive” tax bill last year, Tyson said, she planned to do research in the coming days to prepare for coming tax talks.
“If they remove mortgage deduction and property tax deduction — I have concern over both of those — what size of mortgage do you have to have to be able to itemize instead of getting a standard deduction?” Tyson said. “Those are questions we need to have answered while we’re working the bill.”
Finch said it’s going to take a lot of hard work, intense talks and compromise to solve the state’s budget issues.
“The point is, we’re staring down the barrel of a $700 million deficit,” he said. “ ... The budget is the most important thing we do.”
Jones reiterated Finch’s words of compromise and hard work, but expressed his appreciation of having a leader with a vision.
“We’ve got to take this vision and make it work for our constituents,” he said.
Diane Drake, director of the Elizabeth Layton Center for Guidance and Hope, questioned lawmakers about their stances on concealed weapons allowed in public buildings.
“As a community mental health center, one of the things we need to do is safeguard the building,” she said, also saying concealed weapons at the Layton center might make some patients anxious, as well as put an extra burden on law enforcement.
Jones said he hadn’t heard about any specific bill yet, but was “largely” a proponent of conceal and carry and Second Amendment rights.
As a recreational firearms user, Finch agreed, saying he wouldn’t vote to restrict anyone’s Second Amendment rights. However, he said, mental health patients and administrators have other rights, which might conflict with gun rights.
“Those are touchy areas in our society,” he said. “ ... I understand the right to the feeling of safety and security, and I also understand people’s right to conceal and carry a weapon.”
Ottawa Mayor Gene Ramsey posed a question about the Kansas Department of Transportation involving the state taking money from the transportation program to put in the general fund.
“For whatever it’s worth, KDOT has been very good to Franklin County,” Ramsey said.
All three legislators expressed optimism in that KDOT would be willing to part with some funds to help fund education.
“If you have to take from KDOT, that’s the area I’d like to see it go,” Finch said.
Jones said he was OK with the department handing over extra funds, as long as it wasn’t asking for more money.
Tyson agreed, also expressing optimism about combining the Kansas Turnpike Authority with KDOT — a move planned by Gov. Sam Brownback that is expected to save $15 million.
Several questions came up regarding bills the legislators hadn’t yet read.
“Over 100 bills already have been introduced in the house, and if you think any of us have read all of them, sorry,” Finch said. “Some of them won’t ever see the light of day.”
Nonetheless, he said, he was prepared for some tough talks and heated debates to solve the state’s most pressing issues.
“We have a duty to not embrace simplicity because it’s easy,” Finch said. “We have a duty to look beyond and find adaptive solutions to problems.”
The next Legislative Coffee is planned for 10 a.m. March 2 at City Hall.
“We had a good turnout,” moderator Jackson said. “Hope to see an even bigger turnout next time.”