Archive for Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Governor says Kansas good, improving

2005 Legislature begins work

January 11, 2005

— Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Monday trumpeted achievements under her administration and laid out an agenda for the 2005 legislative session that focused on education and health care.

"I am pleased to report to you that the state of the state of Kansas is good - and improving," Sebelius said in her State of the State speech.

The first day of the legislative session was part ceremony, as 165 lawmakers were sworn into office, and part business, as hundreds of demonstrators swarmed the Capitol, protesting on both sides of a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

One legislative ritual, however, wasn't observed. Sebelius, a Democrat, refused to release her budget proposal the first day, saying she wanted to focus on a vision for the state.

With no budget to analyze and a State of the State speech dominated by broad themes, Republican legislative leaders said they wanted more specifics from the governor.

"A little light on details," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said after Sebelius' 30-minute speech.

"But we're going to get a budget briefing tomorrow and we assume then we'll know a little bit more about exactly what she's going to propose," Mays said.

Speaking to a joint session of the House, Senate and Kansas Supreme Court, Sebelius wrapped her proposals around the theme of creating a "healthy Kansas."

"Let's think of new opportunities, not past constraints, as we visualize the future of the state that we call home," she said in the televised address.

Court deadline

She said the Legislature must work on funding public schools in light of the Kansas Supreme Court's order that found the school finance system unconstitutional.

The state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to increase school funding and tend to parts of the finance distribution system that shortchange low-income and minority students. The court gave the Legislature until April 12 to fix the problem, saying "failure to act in the face of this opinion would require this court to direct action to be taken to carry out that responsibility."

"We must act, and soon," Sebelius said. "Failing to do so would abdicate our most fundamental obligation as public servants."

Sebelius also urged the Legislature to tend to a "quiet crisis."

The escalating costs of health care and growing numbers of uninsured Kansans must be faced, she said. Many families, she said, were having to choose between paying medical bills and "putting food on the table."

Sebelius has proposed a 50-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes to expand health insurance, but didn't mention the tax proposal in her speech.

Sebelius noted improvements in the state's economy since 2002 when drought, recession and the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shattered state tax revenues.

But she said efforts to try new economic strategies and incentives were "wasted unless we seriously address the two most important economic issues in Kansas: education and health care."

Civility urged

Sebelius also called for campaign finance reform to increase disclosure of contributions to candidates, tighter laws on the purchase of over-the-counter drugs that can be used to make illegal methamphetamine, and a Military Bill of Rights to provide benefits for Kansans who serve in the military and their families.

She praised former Rep. Lee Tafanelli, a Republican from Ozawkie, who resigned from the Legislature to serve in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard.

She also said Kansans should engage in discussions on family and faith issues, but urged civility.

"A healthy state encourages many voices - and lots of listening," she said.

After the speech, Republicans said Sebelius needed to provide more details.

Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, said he agreed the session's top issues were education and health care.

"The challenge is to find the funds to do what we all want to do," he said.

Recently, Sebelius has indicated it was solely the Legislature's job to produce a school funding plan because it rejected her proposed tax increase for schools last year.

"That dog won't hunt," said Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing. "I think she understands that. She's going to have to step up and play ball as well."

Speaker Mays agreed.

"It takes the governor and the Legislature to do this. She can't simply wash her hands and walk away," he said.

Republicans' turn

But Democrats said Republican leaders would have to produce a school finance plan because the Democrats' ideas that were voted down last session.

"It's their turn to put their plan on the table," said Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

"I'm waiting to see what Republican leadership comes up with," said Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin.

Mays has said the Legislature could satisfy the court and make a significant increase to school funding without a tax increase.

But Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said that would be impossible.

"We either find the money or the courts will find the money," she said.

Scott Rothschild covers the Legislature for the Lawrence Journal-World

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