Thompson takes on greater role in Topeka

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January 5, 2017 - 12:00 AM

In days of yore when hounds chased after foxes, one fellow was given responsibility of “whipping in” dogs, to prevent their wandering from the pack.
Later, politicians borrowed the hunting term to designate a party whip.
Kent Thompson, a burly former Pittsburg State linebacker, seems tailor-made for the role. With Republicans holding the power in Topeka, Thompson, R-LaHarpe, will serve as majority whip for the upcoming session.
“It’s good for us in southeast Kansas to have a House member on the leadership team,” Thompson said. He will join Speaker Ron Ryckman and four others in deciding what legislation is given priority. He also will be responsible in keeping Republicans “in line” with caucus preferences on bills and votes.
Having influence within the majority is important in any session and for 2017 it is particularly so. Economic concerns peek around every corner. Public school financing is approaching a crossroads — with a state Supreme Court decision pending — and alignment of House GOP moderates and conservatives often will come into play.
“It’s shaping up to be an interesting session,” Thompson understated.
Immediately — and depending on what Gov. Sam Brownback says in his State of the State message Tuesday — legislators will face a $342 million budget shortfall. “You’d think, with the revenue estimate downsized and with Christmas sales, December’s revenue would be on the plus side,” Thompson said. That occurred. Revenue was $541 million, or about 1 percent more than estimated, but way short of what is needed to right the ship.
An upside for moderate Republicans is that Democrats now hold 40 of 125 House seats, and with an increase of middle-of-the-road Republicans a forging of a bi-partisan coalition is predictable. But, Thompson interjected, he would prefer a Republican solution to issues faced, which will entail persuasion on the part of leadership to bring conservatives on board.
Thompson said the only effective tax solution possible is a reach of immense proportions: Brownback could agree to a retroactive income tax increase going back to 2016 and enacted prior to April 15, tax-filing deadline. The chance of that occurring, Thompson admits, is extremely remote. An additional sales tax is also a possibility, and could bear fruit by the end of the fiscal year (June 30), but that, too, floats on the edge of reality.
What may occur, Thompson views with incredulity. “He (Brownback) could try to sell off the tobacco settlement (a strategy that didn’t find traction in a more receptive Legislature in 2016) or sweep unclaimed property revenue.”
Tobacco settlement proceeds were designated for children’s programs, a fact the governor knows well.
“Ron Estes (state treasurer) sent me an email about seizing unclaimed property and pointed out only $40 million is available, not $360 million,” as previously mentioned, Thompson said. The assumption that unclaimed property could be seized is complicated, Thompson said, and in any case would not be enough to address the shortfall.
As far as cutting funds for education, social programs, prisons and any other state responsibilities, including the Department of Transportation budget, “they’ve all been cut to the bone,” he said.

MEANWHILE, the proverbial elephant in the room will be how to fund public education.
The block grant funding could be extended another year and unless legislators reach accord on a new formula by late session, is likely to continue.
The one-size-fits-all method not only is a disservice to small and large districts alike, but misconstrues the reality of the funding. Brownback and his allies maintain education funding is at an all-time high when in fact the increase is merely a pass-through to the coffers of KPERS, the state’s retirement program, and special education.
The formula it replaced — Thompson often has said, “would have been fine if it were fully funded” — took into account such things as students at risk, transportation needs, distinctions in demographics and enrollment fluctuations. Its aim, since being instituted in 1992, was to provide an equal opportunity to a good education for all Kansas children.
Funding the formula was based on a statewide property tax — initially 35 mills and now 20 mills — and distribution of money on a per-pupil basis, plus the weighting factors.
All went well until the Great Recession of 2008 and the state began to cut back on its obligations causing school districts to cry foul and eventually file suit.
An imminent decision by the Kansas Supreme Court will once again decide whether the funding mechanism for education has grown out of whack.
Thompson anticipates the court will give legislators some latitude to cope with whatever their decision is.

A PROMINENT chore, other than those having to do with revenue, that faces the GOP is bringing the party’s two factions closer together in order to pass legislation.
Thompson would like to have more of a moderate-conservative coalition in the House, for obvious partisan reasons, but also knows Democrats carry more voting weight than in the past, and unless they become contrary for political reasons, could ensure passage of certain legislation.
He thinks some conservatives are leaning more to the middle, shaken by the reality of the Nov. 8 election. But some will remain on the fringe. “I know three who voted for the sales tax increase, the largest tax increase in state history, who said they’ll never vote for an income tax increase (or repeal of what was done in 2012-13).” They are mated to Gov. Brownback.
In discussions with Allen County commissioners Tuesday, Sen. Caryn Tyson said she thought her chamber was fairly well split into three camps, Democrats and moderate and conservative Republicans, which will leave leaders there some of the same opportunities as House members in forming coalitions.

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