Speakers covered topics ranging from school funding and taxes to marriage issues and environmental regulations during the Butler County Republican Party 2014 Election kickoff meeting.
On hand were several Butler County senators and representatives to give updates on what they see coming in 2014, as well as other elected officials.
The first to address the group, which met at The Pointe in Augusta, were to candidates for insurance commissioners, Ken Selzer and David Powell.
Selzer spoke first, saying he has 31 years experience in the insurance business.
"It's great running in this campaign," he said. "We have some really, really good candidates here. I'm enjoying it very much. We're out around talking to a lot of people."
He said he is from the heart of Kansas and still owns a farm even though he lives in the Kansas City area now.
"We're still very much connected to the rural part of the state," he said, ending by telling people to remember "KS for KS."
Powell also works in the insurance business.
"I think that is something that distinguishes me more from the other candidates than anything else," he said. "I have spent the last 37 years in the business. The thing I bring to the table is that this election is about you."
He told the people in attendance they are the employer and who they elect is the employee and encouraged them to pick someone who is a good fit.
"We're dealing with insurance here so those needs and concerns are very important," Powell continued. "I'm asking you to hire me for the next four years as your insurance commissioner."
He also said he has been licensed in all major areas of insurance: homeowners, health, life, auto, commercial, etc.
"That's important because this office demands that the person who is the commissioner has knowledge of at least 90 different areas of insurance, not just one."
He said he does not just have plans about what he is going to do, but is currently working on plans to reduce peoples' cost of insurance, including a mandate he got passed last year which can reduce the cost.
"The bottom line is I bring a lot of knowledge, experience, things that can help you with your insurance needs and concerns, and you need to make a decision about who you want to hire for the next four years," Powell said. "I want to be that person."
Sen. Ty Masterson on education
Sen. Ty Masterson, who is in his ninth year in the legislature, was the first to talk about some of the important issues coming up in 2014. He picked one issue to focus on.
Page 2 of 8 - "We are all expecting a decision to come down from the Supreme Court," he said, referring to Gannon vs. Kansas.
"Kansas has been sued seven times now since we put the word in the constitution in the '60s of suitable. Since that word was added to the constitution every six to seven years some group decides whatever amount is not suitable."
He said what was unique was the last two lawsuits, Montoy in 2003 or 2004 was the first time the courts weighed in and said "suitable" has an amount to it and told the legislature what they will spend on schools. He said there was some compromise reached.
"Over a period of years we have put hundreds of millions of dollars more in that direction," he said of school funding. "It still is not suitable and we now have the Gannon case. Not only is it roughly half a billion dollars to spend, but the state can't change the formula (for school funding)."
Masterson said all they have to do is pass a law that renders the court unable to set an amount for funding.
While they are expecting the decision some time in January on the latest lawsuit, Masterson said there are two schools of thought on it. The first says there will be a decision in January.
"I'm in the second school of thought that is they will put the issue off," he said.
"As a delegation we go up there and we decide how much money we take from you and give to the interest of the public. That should not be in courts. They don't have it in their constitutional duties to spend money. We have to govern from the bottom up. It's an ugly process but it's beautiful in the sense it is the only way to govern from the bottom up. I'm very thankful we have the delegation we have up there."
Sen. Forrest Knox on tax reform
With the redistricting Sen. Forrest Knox now covers the majority of Butler County, as well as part or all of eight other other counties, serving his first term in the senate after having been in the house eight years.
"It's amazing to me the group of legislators that represent parts of Butler County," he said, going on to talk a bit about the other representatives and the committees on which they serve. "I think everyone of us are 'house trained.'"
He said when he was running for senate in 2012, the Democrats' and liberal Republicans' main message was "the sky is falling."
"They weren't talking about any immediate problems," he said. "They were saying they passed tax reforms and it is going to kill this state. Ordinary people saw through that and realized 'I want more of my own money in my pocket.' They said it looks like the state is functioning pretty good.
Page 3 of 8 - "Every where I look I see government functioning pretty good and the people of Kansas saw through that technique the Democrats were using. We're exactly in the same place today. Everything is functioning, but it is kind of hard times."
He gave the example of the Butler County Sheriff's Office which has been cut or flat for a while now. While he said that is sometimes hard to deal with, the sheriff's office has dealt with it and continues to do their job.
"I have talked to business people and industries, and guess what? That is the situation. Why should we expect the people who work for the government or get money from tax dollars see great increases when no one else is seeing that. People are struggling and industries are struggling; government agencies should be struggling too."
He challenged people to look around at government and said he believed they would see it is working.
His prediction was the tax reforms made two years ago will stand.
"They will stand because everything is happening according to the plan," he said. "The government is still going to be financed. We will balance the budget."
He also said they would not increase property taxes, explaining the tax reforms they instituted did not increase property taxes or expenses to local units of government.
"We will adequately fund valid functions of government," he said. "What does adequate mean? That's the problem. People who pay taxes and what they this is adequate and people who make their money off of the taxes what they think is adequate are vastly different," he continued, saying they have to find a middle ground.
"My prediction is we will move ahead and the economy will pull out and we will say what a genius that legislature and governor was," Knox concluded.
Rep. David Crum on Medicade reform
Rep. David Crum, who is in his eighth session, serves as the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and the KanCare Oversight Committee.
He said the the biggest issue his committee is dealing with is Medicade reform, which is low-income health insurance.
"It was signed into law in 1965 and it now makes up 25 percent of our state budget," he said. "We have seen significant growth in the Medicade budget in recent years."
He said the state has received a waiver to reform Medicade in Kansas.
"Even in Washington they recognize it is broken and needs to be fixed," he said. "I think Washington is very excited about what we're doing in Kansas but you won't see that on the front page of the paper and you won't hear Obama say it."
Their plan is to cut growth in Medicade by about $800 million in the next five years by improving health outcomes for Medicade patients. The goal is to keep patients out of the hospitals and healthy, which would lower costs.
Page 4 of 8 - They also will be doing incentives to encourage healthier lifestyles.
"There have been a few bumps in the road along the way," Crum said. "When you take on something this monumental it is going to take some time to smooth things out. That is probably going to be the issue I will be dealing with this next session of the legislature."
Rep. Virgil Peck on tax issues, education, gay marriage
Rep. Virgil Peck is beginning his 10th session in the House. He chairs the Transportation Committee and represents southeast Butler County.
He stated the importance of Republicans keeping the majority in the House.
Some issues he said they will face include a push to repeal the death penalty in kansas, repealing the mortgage registration fee, a push to put strong liquor in convenience and grocery stores, additional mandates on health insurance and funding full-day kindergarten.
He said this would give people a feel for what kids of issues they face in the legislature.
One issue he is pushing is for a back-to-school sales tax holiday.
"You always hear from Democrats how we will lose sales tax revenue," he said.
But Peck said anyone who lives close to the border of Missouri or Oklahoma realizes how many people go to those other states to do their school shopping when they hold their sales tax holidays.
He said they should look at it not as what they are losing, but what business owners are gaining.
Another thing he would like to see is a freeze on property taxes for senior citizens the year they turn 65.
"It would help local units of government know how much property tax they will get from that piece of property and let senior citizens be better able to budget," he said.
Looking at education finance, he said he heard the court will make a decision this month, but he also has heard they will make a decision as soon as the legislature passes and the governor signs their budget in June or they will wait until after the 2014 election.
A final topic he addressed was marriage.
"In 1995, under the administration of Bill Clinton Congress passed a Defensive Marriage Act," Peck said. "The Supreme Court last year basically threw out that Act."
He said the Supreme Court said to give same sex couples the same tax benefits as natural married couples, and the state of Kansas tax code is tied to the federal tax code.
"The state will have to give the same tax benefits to perverted marriage as to natural marriage," he said. "I know you voted as Kansas citizens in 2005 to change our constitution to say marriage is one man and one woman."
Page 5 of 8 - He said a simple fix was to make the law match the constitution.
"We do need to protect natural marriage," he said. "It has long been known if you want more of something you tax it less and if you want less of something you tax it more."
He believes providing tax breaks would bring more same sex couples to the state, "which I think is wrong and is not something we want."
Rep. Will Carpenter on liquor laws
Rep. Will Carpenter served his first year in the legislature last year.
He said as always, the other legislators are always hard acts to follow. "It's been great and it's been a good first year," he said. "Now I know enough to be dangerous. If you expected a long speech then you're going to be disappointed."
Carpenter said he has served on four committees, including the Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
He talked about liquor laws and Uncork Kansas.
"I did my best to kill it (in committee) and I believe we did," he said of the law allowing liquor to be sold in convenience and grocery stores."
He said it would cost $1.7 million in tax revenue just for enforcement agents in the law was passed, as well as impacting social issues.
His other committees included the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Telecommunications and Utilities, and Children and Seniors Committee.
Rep. Steve Brunk on marriage and life
Rep. Steve Brunk serves as the chair of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which looks at a plethora of issues, including the Second Amendment, abortion, immigration, alcohol, tobacco and other social issues.
He also serves on the Tax Committee and has previously chaired and is still on the Commerce and Labor Committee. He also chairs the Joint Committee on State Building and Construction, which oversees the state building of prisons, hospitals and universities.
He said if it is January and it is Kansas, there will be pro-life, gun and alcohol bills presented.
"I look at the world through very conservative, GeoChristian world eyes," he said.
"I am in favor of protecting the sanctity of marriage. I also will be working on bills to continue to increase and make more aware about the sanctity of life. I think life begins at the moment of conception and at that moment you are a living human person. I have seen some great success in those areas," he said of protecting the sanctity of life."
Brunk will be working on a religious liberties bill this year that will help protect the sanctity of religious marriage.
One other committee he serves on is the Tax Committee, which is working to provide transparency to property tax bills, although it won't raise or lower taxes.
Page 6 of 8 - Rep. Mark Rhoades on budget transparency
Rep. Mark Rhoades, who has been in the legislature since 2007, is the chair of the Appropriations Committee.
"The goal has always been to get some idea of what we are spending and how we are spending it," he said.
For example, he said they have 99 budgets they handle totaling $5.9 billion, as well as $8 billion federal dollars.
He said for everyone to imagine they got to hear the corrections budget. They are presented with 80 to 90 pages of papers on it, then have an hour and half to look at it and talk to people before deciding how to spend $800 million the next day.
"That's really what it is," he said, adding that the longer they are there the more they know about budgets and the history.
"I am trying to bring some transparency to what we have," he continued. "I'm not trying to say what we're doing is not a good thing, just we don't know. How do we know if it is a good program if we don't know what it is?"
He also said early in many cases they were given no choice about cutting budgets.
"The more we know the better it is," Rhoades continued.
He talked about one of the things he did during the last session. They have experts in their research department, but he said they don't volunteer any information unless asked a direct question, then they will give a direct answer.
"Last year I said to all agencies 'I want your core functions,'" Rhoades said. "It was like pulling teeth but we finally got that."
He began making further changes last year.
He said the system is when they come in on Jan. 13 they don't hear the budget proposal until the State of the State Address, which will be the 15th this year. Then the committees would be given a book a couple of inches thick and the researchers would take that for two weeks and add all of the history and information, greatly increasing its size and splitting it into two books.
"Then they give it to the subcommittees the first of February," he explained. "We would have a one and a half hour meeting and make decisions two days later.
"Last year I said I want every subcommittee to have those budgets seven days before making a decision," he said. "At one point research said they didn't know if it would work because we won't have time. I said 'I don't care, we have all the time in the world.' That happened last year the first time ever I know about."
This year he had researchers working the last month and a half to take those core functions and match it with the dollar amounts being alloted. He said that way when they begin to attach money to a project they have something to match it up to and can ask how they know they're doing a good job with that money.
Page 7 of 8 - "It is like pulling teeth to find efficiencies in government because in some instances you are talking about their jobs," Rhoades said.
One example he gave was of funding alloted to put in T-1 lines at rural hospitals and other facilities. They were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to AT&T for these lines, but it wasn't until after an audit was conducted they found out most of the lines were not even being used. The problem was it was connected to someone's job.
"When we're dealing with $14 million it's tough just because people don't want to let go," he said. "We want to bring efficiencies. We are happy to fund things that are working."
He also briefly discussed education.
"Do you realize we've spent double on K-12 education now?" he asked. "We are hitting almost $13,000 per student since 1998 when it was $6,000 or $7,000. Our national assessment scores are absolutely flat as was in 1998. Am I against education? Absolutely not. What's that definition of insanity? When we add up our increases there is over $3 billion in extra money. It's about doing it better, smarter."
He gave the example of Walton Rural Life, a charter school in Newton. He said they have a waiting list to 2019 and it is cheaper than any elementary school in that district.
"Those kids count real money, they sell real eggs," he explained. "They take practical information and apply it to reading, writing and arithmetic and they love to learn. What a concept? They have 98-plus percent assessment in every grade level.
"My point is there is an efficient model. We need to use it in all elementary schools. I want to spend your tax money wisely."
Rep. Dennis Hedke on energy and environmental regulations
Rep. Dennis Hedke has been in the House for three sessions.
"Three years in House has been a real interesting time period," he said. "I had multiple opportunities to deal with some interesting and difficult issues. I appreciate having the opportunity to juggle these matters and make wise decisions on your behalf."
He serves on the Education Committee and Task Committee, as well as the Energy and Environment Committee.
Last year they faced a lot of issues form Telecom, as well as some deregulation issues coming down the pike and some things that looked back at historic legislation.
"I do want to make a point, in 2008, a then-senator from Illinois who was then a presidential candidate was sitting down with ???," he said.
He said Obama said if his plan for cap and trade came into effect, electricity costs will necessarily skyrocket because he wanted to bankrupt coal companies.
"His plan is happening," Hedke said. "What is happening in our state, since 2009, since legislation then passed renewable portfolio mandates, costs in the Westar south zone have gone up about 40 percent. In Kansas City costs have gone up as much as 60 percent in some areas.
Page 8 of 8 - "I'm able to withstand that increase without any major interruption in my life but there are a lot of folks in this state who are on fixed incomes and have certainly felt this increased pressure and they are very, very concerned about where it is heading," Hedke continued. "The trend is not leveling off. Westar just got another increase a few months ago."
There also is concern over transmission costs.
"There are a lot of factors that come into that increase," he said, "so if there is any way to mitigate or soften that incline and try to flatten in out, there are thousands of Kansas residents who will benefit from that very action. I do say I believe it is worthy of further debate."
He said the other thing the president has done in the last year is to come out with a climate action plan, which has a host of recommendations and objectives to a point Hedke said he would reject it categorically without any exception.
"In the first paragraph he highlights the need to control carbon pollution.
"I want to make a point here," he said. "When he says carbon, he's talking about CO2, because it is an emission the Supreme Court determined in 2009 that the EPA needed to wrestle with whether it should regulate CO2 as a pollutant. It was grouped into the mix as a greenhouse gas.
"I will tell you without any hesitation, CO2 never has been and never will be a pollutant. We should be thankful to have it around us. Plants thrive on the stuff. Greenhouses know that and feed it all day long to the plants."
He also said the small percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere produced by humans is mathematically impossible to affect the climate.
"The science is very clear and it is very definitive," he said. "The whole debate around the fossil fuel industry is built around that CO2. When people in the country know the truth about CO2 and the benefits it brings, then the people of America will start waking up a little bit," said Hedke, who is a geophysicist.
Following the presentations, the legislators talked with constituents.
Julie Clements can be reached at email@example.com.