Kan. Lawmakers Open Session With Smiles, Busy Agenda

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Like the first day of school, Kansas lawmakers were all smiles in Topeka Monday. Old friends saying hello again. New friends being made and congratulated.

But those smiles may turn to frowns as lawmakers begin tackling a major revenue shortfall and loads of issues from school funding to selecting judges that they’ll face in the next 90 days.

The House swore in 49 new members. On the Senate side, 14 new members took the oath of office, though most had served in the House, including Overland Park and Lenexa State Senator Greg Smith.

One of the first issues he’ll face is the state’s one cent sales tax and whether or not to renew a major portion of it to help deal with a $700 million dollar budget shortfall. For Smith it will be a tough sell since he opposed the sales tax when he served in the House.

“I’m very concerned about taking money away from people,” Smith said, adding “I don’t consider the tax money my money. So I’m reticent to take money away from anybody.”

The new and mostly conservative line-up will also be a challenge for lobbyists who must learn the new faces, and get them to focus on their agendas. For Unified Government and Kansas City, Kan., lobbyist Mike Taylor, that means reminding lawmakers that when they cut services or keep revenues once destined for county and local governments, that means higher taxes downstream.

“The state will say we’re going to cut or change this service and save all this money. Well, what they’ve really done is shift it down to the county level or the city level, and we’re having to pick up those duties and pay for them out of property taxes,” Taylor said.

On the House side, newly elected Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell said he doesn’t know where the money will come from either and the sales tax extension will be a hard sell.

“I think I have a tremendous budget committee makeup, budget chairs. We’ll get it done.”

Governor Brownback, who’ll deliver his state of the state Tuesday night, hopes renewing the sales tax will pave the way for further cutting of the state’s income and corporate taxes.

Meantime, Speaker Merrick said his election is a big win for Johnson County.

“I think it’s huge. Last time was 30 years ago. It’s a recognition that Johnson County, not having anyone for a long time, I’m willing to work with everyone across the state, and this is proof of that.”

On both sides of the rotunda, that work will include hot button issues like immigration, selection of appeals court judges, and education funding. And with conservatives firmly in control of both houses, it remains to be seen how far those agendas will advance.

Protestors outside the statehouse worry too far. MoveOn.Org organized the “People’s State of the State”, featuring more than a dozen speakers at a noon rally on the capitol steps.

They worry the revenue shortfall and spending cuts could impact education and social services.

But inside, on this day, not much talk of policy. It was more a day for families and oaths and new office mates. The real work begins in the coming days, when many expect those smiles to fade.

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