The most pressing issues for area residents were addressed by local Kansas representatives at the Gardner Library, Saturday, March 11.
The coffee forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Johnson County.
Rep. Allison Houghland, District 15, Rep. John Resman, District 121, and Rep. Bill Sutton, District 43 answered questions about their positions on voucher programs, the flat tax, Medicaid, raising the age of tobacco users, the food tax, property taxes, SPED education, transgendered students in school sports, inflation, making voting easier and the best way to keep up with the legislature.
Each representative had three minutes to answer questions and was timed by a moderator after they opened with information about the work they do in Topeka.
Houghland said she represented “Old Olathe” and was born in Olathe. She serves on the legislation modernization, welfare reform, childcare and fostercare and elections commit-tees. She voted against a measure of not counting ballots that come in three days after election even if they are postmarked on time and thinks getting rid of ballot boxes is a bad idea.
“On welfare reform the most recent thing we heard was about criminalizing homelessness,” she said. “I am against that. I feel like housing first is the way to handle homelessness.”
Houghland said the legislature would again be hearing about able bodied adults without dependents. She said they were looking at extending the federal law in Kansas from 18 to 49 years of age up to 59 years of age.
“So that means those that are not working at least 30 hours a week would be enrolled in work training,” Houghland said. “A lot of people don’t have control if they are not working 30 hours a week—things can change based on circumstances. It’s a big thing.”
Resman said his district runs along west of Hwy. K-7, south of K-10 Hwy., and north of 159th St. all the way to county line. He serves on three committees that include federal state affairs, corrections in juvenile justice and as vice chair for public safety and transportation budget. He helped pass a bill in the house that involves end of life visitation for loved ones and is currently waiting for the Kansas Senate to pass it.
“Because of Covid there were many people that couldn’t visit their loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes and a lot of them died alone,” he said.
Resman said the other bill was a tax bill that wasn’t exactly his “forte.”
“If you trade in a car and you get the value of that car and you pay the tax difference between the value of that car and the price of the car if you sell privately you don’t get that tax benefit,” he said.
Resman said the bill would give a tax break to the consumer. The tax break could be used on a down payment and the consumer would only pay the tax difference so they are not paying as much in taxes.
“It is a tax break for the consumer,” he said. “And it will probably spur car sales because people will be able to now get that tax break.”
Other things Resman has worked on involve increased penalties for battered hospital workers, penalties for hu- man smuggling, and increased penalties for people who manufacture fentanyl.
Sutton represents District 43 with Gardner lying right in the middle. He has served for 11 years and is involved in many committees from appropriations, commerce, labor and economical development and chairing the insurance committee.
“That pretty much fills up my time,” he said. He also chairs an interim joint committee for state building construction.
“It doesn’t meet often, but it is pretty important and stuff we are dealing with,” Sutton said. He cited a recent example about the Docking Building across the street from the Kansas State Capital that is being torn down and how it is always a gray line of refurbishing or rebuilding.
Sutton said he also serves on a joint committee on state employee and board member compensation, and even though it is very specialized it is very fascinating. He said serving on the joint committee for rules and regulations was “the driest committee on Earth, but if you really want to know how government really works that is a fantastic place to sit,” because even if they pass legislation how it is implemented by the agencies is based on their rules and regulations.
“It just goes to show you how this really works when rubber meets the road,” Sutton said.
Voucher Programs Many questions were asked about legislation revolving around school voucher programs that take public funds for public schools and put them toward private schools. Those asking the question said they do not benefit most students in Kansas. No geographic access or can’t pay full cost. They said Kansas private schools do not have to meet Kansas accountability standards.
Houghland said she had the same question herself.
Resman said he didn’t have an answer either as he is not involved with education committees.
Sutton said as far as the number of bills he was unaware of that as well but knows of one out of the House and one out of the Senate.
“As far as I know the one out of the House passed out of committee, but then it got referred back to because I guess there was more work that had to be done, but there were no vouchers in that one,” he said. “It was for educational savings accounts, which some would argue are probably similar. But although there is a neat economic process that goes with an ESA rather than a voucher, but we can get into that later.”
Sutton said as far as how many there are he only knows of the two and doesn’t even know what is in the bill.
Education and voucher questions kept being asked throughout the morning.
Houghland said expanding a voucher program takes money away from public education and she is not for it.
“Public education is why people move to Kansas. It is why people live here. It is because we do a good job of educating our students,” she said. “The argument that our schools are failing is simply incorrect. They are not failing. They are doing a great job. There is no proof or evidence that private schools do a better job of educating children. Those arguments are of no use. It will really devastate public education.”
Resman said he leans toward parents having the ability to decide what is best for their children as far as eduhe cation, but is not totally committed.
Sutton said he was adamantly opposed to vouchers but supports parent choice.
“Vouchers economically aren’t going to do what we hope that they will do,” he said. “The net effect is private schools have a decision to make to expand to accept more people because now more people can afford it or raise tuition.”
Sutton said he believes private schools would choose to raise tuition to keep the same amount of students, but making more money off of them which still makes their schools out of reach for most students.
“It is exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve,” he said. “And so someone mentioned that educational savings accounts are the same thing. They have a similar effect, but here is the difference, there is a downward economic pressure that’s placed on. If you don’t spend that $5,000 in that educational savings account this year it builds up.”
Sutton said over time the money is being built up that can be used for higher education down the road.
“There is a downward pressure on the tuition prices, so parents who choose to do so can save money for college for that student,” he said. “Not bad. That to me looks like a very nice idea.”
Sutton said there were statement about ESAs that had been made that he wanted to clarify.
“If we make the claim that vouchers or ESAs will crush education, what you are saying is that if parents have a choice they would not choose our public institutions,” he said. “I don’t believe that to be true. I think that some won’t because they know what is best for their student or child.”
The audience also had many questions and concerns about special education funding.
Houghland said she would like to think they could fund special education programs without a voucher program.
Resman said he didn’t like when multiple items were lumped into one bill together, as this is what continues to happen with special education bills, and it makes voting very difficult.
Sutton said he agreed with Resman and preferred items to be separated out, so he can know what he is voting for and voting against.
“SPED funding is a unique puzzle,” he said. “It turns out it hasn’t been fully funded for 11 years. The formula was put in place to fund special ed 11 years ago. So special ed hasn’t been funded per the formula we passed in 2012 since 2012. So something needs to be fixed.”
Sutton said they were really digging in this year to try and figure out a solution, and SPED is drastically underfunded in Johnson County and Gardner. Gardner is only 64 percent funded, Olathe is 55 percent funded and $20 million in the hole, and the state is $110 million in the hole.
He said if a person visits smaller school districts their SPED programs are funded by 200 to 300 percent.
“Something is wrong,” he said. “It is obviously formulaic.”
Sutton said it is not defined in statute and is a gray area of how it should be funded that is played with by various administrations and some school districts are putting the cost of construction amortized with what is used for special education into their special education funding and getting reimbursed for it.
“Whether I agree or not is irrelevant because it is not defined at all,” said. “They can do it. Some are putting their teacher salaries which to me seems fully appropriate. Some are amortizing their utility rates. It is a hodge podge.”
Sutton said they are finally working this year to put definitions in place to define what is and isn’t an acceptable amount.
“How do we make sure small and big districts are both being fully funded,” he said.
Resman said they had passed a house resolution a few weeks ago and the federal government isn’t fully funding it.
“Everyone wants it but they do not want to fully fund it,” he said.
Resman said they sent a resolution to Washington D.C. to let the federal government know that they were not happy with them, but Kansas should take care of its own business first before pointing fingers.
Attendees to the forum has several questions on the flat tax, Kansas food sales tax, taxes leaving the State because Medicaid isn’t being expanded and the recent assessed property taxes.
Sutton said he loved the idea of a flat tax but didn’t see it happening.
“I think it would be egalitarian in nature for everyone to be bearing the same tax rate,” he said. “I don’t see it happening because it is going to be expensive.”
Sutton said the budget numbers as they have developed throughout the course of the year and the new spending proposed predominantly through social service budgets along with the economic development prevent him from seeing an ending balance that would support a flat tax.
Houghland said she also saw it as a bad idea, but for different reasons.
“People who have the least ability to pay will be asked to pay the same amount as those with the most,” she said. “It actually shifts the burden to the middle class which is already shrinking.”
Houghland said it would most likely put the State in default again and undo everything.
Resman said it was hard to have an opinion before the bill hits the floor because it can be amended to death in committee and be a different bill by the time it comes out.
Houghland said she would love to see the expansion of Medicaid, but there are not enough votes in the house for it.
“As a member of the super minority my vote would be with them, but it would help a great deal with foster care, it would help with child welfare, it would help with welfare reform, it would help so many people in our community including veterans and children. So I don’t have an answer as to why we haven’t done it,” she said.
Resman said as a veteran himself veterans always have the VA to go to for medical assistance, and he doesn’t believe the expansion would cover anything the VA doesn’t already for veterans.
Sutton said there are lengthy waiting lists for a multitude of services that are 10 years long.
“So in answer to that we are going to put more people on the list,” he said. “We are going to expand it to cover more people. That is not going to serve those that aren’t being served right now. That is going to push them further back down the line.”
Sutton said the lists need to be cleared up, and he wasn’t going to add more to the already underserved.
Houghland said she was doing everything she could to help reduce the Medicaid backlog.
Sutton said he would like to see an actual, tangible result because there are people who have been waiting a long time on the list while others are preemptively being added in anticipation of when they will need the services years down the line.
Resman said completely eliminating the food sales tax will effect the state budget and it should be brought down incrementally per the bill that was passed last year.
He said the State of Kansas will have a loss of $500 million when the tax is eliminated, and it was best to see it come down slowly to see how it effects the budget over time and the most.
“I grew up in New Jersey where the sales tax on food was zero,” Resman said. “And I can tell you they shifted the sales tax on food to property taxes. You think your property tax is high right now just wait until they eliminate it from 100 percent down to zero. That is going to go from sales tax in food to property tax.”
Sutton said he hadn’t seen the bill but he agreed with Resman.
“We don’t have the authority first off in my opinion to eliminate the sales tax for counties and cities,” he said. “We could give it a try, but I think we would end up on court on that. I am pretty sure we would lose. I don’t see it as a real option.”
Sutton said the State is going to make their money somewhere, it is going to have to come from somewhere and most likely the money will come from property taxes.
“And based on the emails I get that is a touchy subject,” he said. “Start raising property taxes even further I don’t think that is going to go over real well.”
Sutton said they don’t have the authority, and it would be a nightmare for property taxes.
“The key to success for budgeting is to have a smooth line,” he said. “Jagged lines do a couple of things—you don’t know how jagged it is going to get or far it is going to fall revenue or expense. You don’t know so you can’t plan for it effectively.”
Sutton said no one suffering the effects can plan accordingly and the one necessary thing is budgeting needs to be predictable so businesses know what to expect.
“When the lines get jagged people get scared and run away,” he said. “People don’t start businesses here because they don’t know what to expect. It is vital to keep smooth lines in budget and tax revenue,” he said.
Houghland said she campaigned on stopping the food tax immediately.
“I feel like the number is a known number because it is shown on the balance sheet as to how much money comes in as food tax,” she said. “I don’t really feel like it is an unknown. The idea of the State doing away with taxes for counties and cities I feel like it is a really bad idea, because they will have to make up the money somehow. Property taxes is probably where it would go.”
Houghland said there is a three point plan to reduce property taxes. She has signed on to three different bills with one that would require the vote of every Kansan to reduce the mill levy from 11.5 to 9 percent. There is an ad valorem tax relief fund that is part of Kansas law that hasn’t been funded for 20 years.
“That is money that would go to cities and counties for their local taxes that would be an offset from the State,” she said.
Houghland said the other part of the plan would be to change the part of the property taxes that aren’t taxed from the first 20 to $40,000 to being raised to the first $65,000.
“So now that is going to help the people that met me at the door from saying how do I keep my Mom in her house,” she said. “I am getting totally taxed out from living here. Where am I supposed to go.”
Houghland said she feels they can do something about the property tax and the bills need to be heard.
Sutton said he didn’t have a great deal of arguments against Houghland’s plan for reducing property taxes but as the amount that is being increased isn’t taxed and isn’t a problem on the State level, cities and counties make their money off of property taxes.
“I would be very concerned if we are reducing their revenue base,” he said. “The first expectation would be mil levies would go up. It is a policy decision. Is that what we want to do.”
Sutton said it would make the increase in the amount that is not taxed irrelevant because the mil levy would go up for the remaining part that is taxed.
“So unless your house was right at $65,000 in value it probably isn’t going to have the effect that you are hoping that it would have,” he said.
Sutton said they had tried a number of ways over the years to put a lid on property taxes. He said it didn’t work the way they had hoped because there was no flexibility in it, especially for places with rapid growth. Places with rapid growth needed to be able to access more funding for developments, so they had to start perforating for various and sundry reasons until it became useless to have a property tax lid.
Sutton said a few years ago they passed the “Truth in Taxation” where is they increased spending they had to take a public vote to do so whether the mil levy was going up or not.
“I haven’t seen the results from that, but at least we are having hearings and votes on property tax increases,” he said. “Apparently, they are still going up based on the emails I am receiving. It doesn’t look to be particularly more effective even though it is more transparent.”
Houghland said when the current property tax schedule was put into place from the 1970s the percent of the budget that came into the State was 35 percent and it is now 50 percent.
“So I don’t really feel like the structure that was put into place back then meant to put 50 percent of the budget on property tax,” she said. “I think property values have gone up way faster than anyone expected and that just puts the burden primarily on the property owners of Kansas.”
Houghland said as an ex-smoker she supported Kansas raising the age of a person who can consume and purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 years of age because it follows along with the federal mandate and it is hard to quit.
Resman said he didn’t vote for the bill because the law was already there and it felt redundant.
“The federal law is 21,” he said. “It was a bill that passed that probably wasn’t really needed. If someone is 18 they can vote, they can serve in the military, they can die for their country, they can be sued and sue somebody, they can buy a home, etc.”
Sutton said he echoed Resman and also didn’t support it because the law is already on the books.
“The issue that I have though is that we can’t seem to decide what is an adult,” he said. “We say you can drive a car at 16, you can register to vote at 18, you can enlist in the military at 18, you can buy a rifle at 18, you can buy a pistol at 21, you can drink alcohol at 21, you can buy cigarettes at 21, you can be tried as an adult for a crime anywhere from 12 and up, and then we get the argument that the human brain isn’t fully mature until 25. What gives folks. What is an adult.”
Sutton said it seemed like they were just throwing a dart at a number and pretending that is the level of an adult.
“What I think would be most beneficial is to just pick a number,” he said. “I don’t care what it is within reason. 18, 21, 25 whatever you want to say what is an adult let’s just call that person an adult rather than making up laws here and there randomly in a patchwork of definitions.”
When it came to views on transgender students participating in school sports the three representatives had different views.
Resman said he didn’t think there was a bill that had come forward or come out of committee and legislation had been stalled.
Sutton said there was one that under headlines had fallen as being “anti- trans”.
“But in reality it was saying women participate in women’s sports and men participate in men’s sports,” he said. “That earned the moniker of anti-trans. The way to think about it is if a woman were competing in a girls sport and tested positive for massive doses of testosterone they would be ruled out. If a man were competing in a woman’s sport guess what, they would also have massive amounts of testosterone and be ruled out. This was a no-brainer. Women compete in women’s sports and men compete in men’s sports.”
Suttons said it seemed strange they even had to have a conversation about “as basic as that.”
Resman said he wanted to apologize as he had misunderstood the question and there is a bill currently on the way to the Governor to be signed.
“So we will see how she signs it,” he said.
Houghland said transwomen are women.
“People are not changing who they are to compete in school sports,” she said. “People are just being who they are.”
Finally, the representatives shared they are pro-voter rights but want to continue to insure that voting is safe and secure.
Houghland said she supported anything to make it easier for people to vote that brings in everyone’s voice.
“I think restricting voices and restricting votes is a horrible idea,” she said.
Houghland said ballot drop boxes allow people to vote on their own timeframe.
“They are safe,” she said. “They are supervised sort of. Most of them have a camera on them. People are concerned about ballot harvesting. I have not heard of any ballot harvesting in Kansas. I think anyone of us—if someone needs help to get their vote in the box—anything we can do.”
Houghland said she thinks people should be automatically registered to vote at 18 whether they want to or not.
“It should happen in high school,” she said. “It should be everywhere. Everyone should vote. I thank all of you that are here.”
Resman said he agreed that he liked ballot boxes and that they make it easier to vote.
“If we can have ballot boxes we can make them secure,” he said. “Kansas makes it easy. We need to keep elections as honest as possible.”
Sutton said he was fine with ballot boxes as long as they were kept secure and treated seriously.
“It is when they are not secure there could be some pushback,” he said. “We have had cases with cameras on them that weren’t actually on. We have had cameras on that weren’t being monitored. Some of those things we need to polish up.”
Sutton said they have too many civic responsibilities not to treat voting as a serious event.