By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
The Kansas Legislature recently reached the halfway point of this year’s session, and two area lawmakers were in town Monday for a legislative luncheon hosted by the Liberal Chamber of Commerce.
Senator Garrett Love and Representative Reid Petty spoke about a variety of issues on the agenda in Topeka this year.
A good deal of Love’s time was spent focusing on the upcoming decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to potentially list the Lesser Prairie Chicken as an endangered species.
“This is actually a very big issue for Southwest Kansas, one of the biggest probably economically that we’re looking at,” he said. “The federal government right now is looking at potentially listing it as an endangered species. There’s plans out there right now by several different states to not have it be listed.”
Love said while farmers have been a big focus of the debate over the LPC, other industries could take a hit from a decision in favor of the listing of the bird as endangered.
“Anyone who’s going to drill an oil well is going to have to pay an extra $50,000 to $100,000 as a development tax,” he said. “Same way for windmills, transmission lines, buildings, houses, residential homes. That’s pretty concerning. You’re increasing the cost of developing, which is, I think, already more expensive out here in some ways.”
Love said the decision could also put some farm land out of use.
“It encourages people to drill oil wells or put up windmills on already developed land,” he said. “You’re going to be taking productive ag land out of use rather than putting it on grass or something that’s not near as productive or profitable. That’s very concerning to me.”
Love said the prairie chicken’s declining numbers are not just due to people, but also certain environmental factors as well.
“We’re definitely the bulk of it,” he said. “The biggest thing with any species is you need water, you need rain. The drought has had a big toll on all our wildlife and all of our crops and our grass.”
Love said with the feds taking the decision out of the private sector’s hands, very little can be done at lower levels.
“We’re going to work to conserve this as a state,” he said. “This is a non-migratory bird. We have some different plans that would be less drastic in terms of hurting development.”
Love later addressed a bill in the state legislature to bring harsher punishments to those who try to scam people, particularly seniors.
“We’ve strengthened the abilities of prosecutors and increased penalties on those that do that,” he said. “We need to protect our seniors, those that have provided other opportunities to make our state and our country what it is today.”
Love later pointed to some other good news taking place in the state. Kansas exports have gone up about 6 to 7 percent this year.
“To me, that’s what growing an economy across a region, a city, a state and a country looks like,” he said. “You’re bringing in more dollars from the outside inside. That helps immensely as we’re growing. A lot of ours has been within agriculture with transportation. Aviation has been another big one.”
Petty said on the House side in Topeka, the session has been a slow one so far.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that last year, we passed a two-year budget,” he said. “There hasn’t been the budgetary work that you usually do up to this point.”
Petty said lawmakers are still awaiting a decision from the Kansas Supreme Court on an education funding lawsuit.
“Since that hasn’t come down, that’s allowed for us to have more time to work on other issues,” he said.
Petty later revisited the education lawsuit, stating the state is allotting one of the highest rates of dollars from its budget in the country, and this could play a factor in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“At the moment, per student for public education, 12,781 total dollars goes to education,” he said. “That number is the highest number it’s ever been before. Over 50 percent of the state’s budgets goes for K-12 education. If you throw in higher education, that makes it over 60 percent. The average state in the United States contributes around 38 percent of their total budget toward K-12 education.”
Petty did say, though, last week, things got a little busier in the House.
“We had a really busy week this past week in the House where we passed 54 bills,” he said. “The 54 bills were pretty much passed in two different days.”
Along with Love’s news that exports in the state had risen, Petty said another economic factor has shown some signs of improving as well.
“The unemployment in the state of Kansas is now down to 4.9 percent, the lowest it’s been in a very long time,” he said. “At the national level, it’s still close to 7 percent.”
After a $500 million shortfall going into the 2011 session, Petty said legislators started this year with a $700 million surplus.
“We’ve gone from being the second highest state when it comes to income tax to the second lowest in the region,” he said.
Petty said 20,000 new private sector jobs were created in Kansas between November 2012 and November 2013, and nearly 50,000 have been created since January 2011.
“New businesses are moving across the line from Missouri and Oklahoma,” he said. “A lot of businesses are coming to Kansas because of the tax breaks that they can get.”
Petty said population is likewise growing in the Sunflower State.
“We’re nearing the 3 million mark, and Governor Brownback in his State of the State discussed that a lot,” he said. “He kind of emphasized things he’d like to see Kansas do before we hit that 3 million people in mark.”
Petty said Kansas is also looking to become part of the Health Care Compact, which may help the state opt out of some, if not all, of the federal Affordable Care Act.
“It’s a special thing that states can do,” he said. “It only takes two states to agree they want to do it. It takes the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate to pass something to allow the states to do it. It does not require a presidential signature to go into effect.”
Petty said if the state legislature votes to do so, Kansas would join several other states, including neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma, in the compact, which would allow the states to control health care rather than the federal government.
“They could choose to opt out of many of the things that are included in Obamacare,” he said.