The message was one of thanksgiving and hope Tuesday night.
Those sentiments weren’t expressed over turkey and pumpkin pie by pastors at a holiday community dinner, but rather by Franklin County’s new team of state lawmakers during the annual 2012 Legislative Dinner at the Neosho County Community College’s Ottawa campus, 900 E. Logan St.
“I hope that we can work in the spirit of cooperation to get things done in Topeka that are in the best interests of this district and the state,” Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, told representatives from the City of Ottawa, Franklin County and the Ottawa school district — co-sponsors of the dinner — who were joined by other guests at the event.
Finch, state representative-elect in the 59th District, told local elected officials he was thankful for their support, and that he would seek out their advice when deliberating issues in the coming 2013 Legislative session.
Finch was joined by two other new legislators to Franklin County at the guest table — Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, state representative-elect in the 5th District, and state Rep. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, state senator-elect in the 12th District.
Gone from the speakers’ table were lawmakers Bill Feuerborn, TerriLois Gregory, Bill Otto, Willie Prescott, Pat Apple and Jeff King, as Franklin County — through a combination of redistricting and the will of voters — ushered in a changing of the guard in Topeka.
But with that change came a pledge from lawmakers Finch, Jones and Tyson to work with local city, government and school officials — as well as their peers in Topeka — to benefit residents in their districts and the state.
Jones, a Wellsville school board member, talked about the importance of maintaining a partnership of trust between state legislators and local school, city and county officials. He pledged to work hard to maintain that trust and said he welcomed calls from his constituents. Jones, who defeated veteran incumbent lawmaker Feuerborn, D-Garnett, vowed to work quickly to get up to speed on all the issues. The freshman lawmaker said he was grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“Bill [Feuerborn] served honorably, and I know I’m just getting started, but I’m going to serve the best I can,” Jones said. “I appreciate your support, and I look forward to serving you.”
Tyson also thanked the audience for their support and said she was looking forward to serving the people of Franklin County in the state Senate.
While the dinner gave lawmakers a chance to talk with local elected officials, it also provided the opportunity for representatives from the city, county and school district to take about their governing bodies’ legislative priorities.
The common underlying theme among all local governing entities was a plea to lawmakers to not allow more of the tax burden to be shifted to local property taxpayers.
“We have seven legislative priorities, and the reoccurring theme in all of them is that we oppose shifting more of the ad valorem tax burden onto local property taxpayers,” Colton Waymire, vice chairman of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, said.
The county’s legislative priorities included:
• Franklin County opposes any expansion of the property tax exemption for machinery and equipment. Expansion of this exemption further erodes the property tax base and transfers the burden of the property tax to residential, agriculture and small commercial taxpayers.
• Franklin County opposes any constitutional or statutory amendment to impose spending or taxing limitations on county government.
• Franklin County supports full funding in state grants for community mental health services, allowing community mental health centers to annually serve 60,000 uninsured and underinsured county residents not eligible for Medicaid. Without adequate state support, mentally ill individuals too often end up in contact with law enforcement and in county jails or local hospital emergency rooms, all of which are funded by county governments.
• Franklin County supports state funding to reimburse counties for the cost of housing convicted felons. Further, the state should keep accurate records of the number of felons in county jails and make such information available to the public.
• Franklin County supports legislation to provide a statutory menu of taxing and revenue options to finance county services which could be exercised by boards of county commissioners on a county-by-county basis.
• Franklin County opposes any further exemptions to the ad valorem property tax base or the state/local sales tax base. The county opposes any legislation that sweeps fees intended for distribution to local government into the state general fund for use by the state.
Dean Katt, superintendent of Ottawa schools, provided the school district’s five legislative priorities:
• Ottawa USD 290 opposes changing the school finance formula. The district wants to protect current funding and provide for rising costs and targeted investments in student support.
• Ottawa USD 290 opposes shifting the tax burden to local school district taxpayers. The district supports maintaining state aid equalization for local property taxes, bond and interest, local option budget and reinstating state aid for capital outlay.
“We strongly encourage reinstating state aid for capital outlay,” Katt said.
Tyson said a move was afoot during the last legislative session to cut capital outlay state aid.
“I would consider it a victory [in the coming session] if we can keep it from being lowered,” she said.
• Ottawa USD 290 supports state funding of all-day kindergarten and support of early childhood programs. The district also would like to see additional funding for programs that have the greatest impact on student success and protecting social services.
Katt said funding for early childhood programs is vital.
“We see more and more kindergarten students each year that haven’t seen a book or held a pencil,” he said. “We need to do more for early childhood programs.”
Katt said protecting money for social services programs also is critical, citing the fact the Ottawa school district has 134 students who are classified as homeless as an example for the need for social services programs.
• The school district also supports a multi-year finance plan that would enable districts to plan ahead and manage cash balances in a more efficient manner.
Finch said he understood the need for local governments to be able to plan ahead, and he said the state Legislature needs to have a fiscally responsible long-range plan in place so local governing entities will have a better idea of what state funding will be available down the road.
“That’s just smart government,” Finch said.
• The school district also supports giving local school boards more flexibility in developing programs and operations.
Blake Jorgensen, Ottawa mayor and host for the evening’s dinner, outlined the city’s legislative priorities:
• The city asks the Legislature to respect the partnership between local elected and state officials. Furthermore, the Legislature is requested to protect the constitutional grant of home rule to cities.
• The city opposes imposition of a tax lid by the Legislature when other restrictions are being placed on the abilities of local governments to fund local services.
• The city supports the continuation of a comprehensive funding program that addresses local and state transportation needs throughout the state. The city also supports the state continuing to share fuel tax receipts with local units of government and empowering local governments for the establishment of local fuel tax, with approval by public vote. Furthermore, the legislative authorization of sweeping transportation funds into the state general fund should be discontinued in order to protect the integrity of the existing transportation program.
• The city encourages the Legislature to undertake a thorough study of existing sales tax exemptions with the intent of restoring the revenue base for both local and state governments by repealing exemptions on non-essential items.
• The city strongly suggests that when consideration is being given to changing and/or eliminating state revenue sources (state income, property and fuel taxes) the effects upon local units of government be considered, especially those social programs traditionally funded at the state level, such as mental health and children’s services.
Finch — who previously served as an Ottawa city commissioner, Franklin County counselor and sought an Ottawa school board seat when he was 17 years old — said he understands what a tough job local elected officials have, and he wants to ensure local governments have a voice in the state governing process. Finch said he is not going to Topeka with the intention of telling local governments how to do their jobs, but rather to work to make sure local governance can be successful for the benefit of all Kansans.
State Sen. Apple, R-Louisburg, who also was in the audience, thanked the residents of Franklin County for allowing him to represent them for the past eight years, and he said he looked forward to visiting Franklin County in the future.
Apple, whose newly drawn legislative district no longer included Franklin County, won election to the 37th District Senate seat earlier this month. He said he eagerly anticipated working with Franklin County’s new legislators and hoped lawmakers in the House and Senate could work together in the coming session for the good of Franklin County residents and all Kansans.
Jorgensen thanked Apple for his service, citing the senator’s key role in securing state dollars for planned upgrades to the intersection of K-68 and Davis Avenue in Ottawa that would allow for the expansion of the city’s industrial park.
Tyson previously had served in the Kansas House since 2011 before winning the 12th District Senate seat in the general election. Tyson said she was looking forward to working with Apple in the Senate. She said while the makeup of the House and Senate remained the same — 92 Republicans out of 125 state representatives and 32 Republicans out of 40 state senators — the Legislature includes more than 50 new representatives and 14 new senators. Furthermore, 16 chairs of the House’s 28 committees no longer are in the chamber.
But the Republican lawmaker said she was looking forward to working with all of her new colleagues. Tyson, who said she believed in fully vetting a bill before it was put to a vote, cited an example in the past session where one bill swelled into 11 bills — nine of which had never made it to the House floor — which the House was expected to vote on.
Tyson said she planned to work to make sure that kind of legislative work didn’t happen in the future.
Like Jones and Finch, she also pledged to work with local elected officials.
“I believe the best government is the government that’s closest to the people,” Tyson said, “and I will always keep that in mind when I’m voting.”