Kendra Harnden/Herald-Chronicle

Wayne White
| Managing Editor

As Governor Mark Parkinson finished signing and vetoing bills last month, state Representative Willie Prescott was hoping to finish his spring planting.

Prescott also finished his second legislative session as it wound to an end in May with lawmakers trying to pass a last minute budget. With the session ended, Prescott faced catching up on farming before beginning his next campaign for state representative.

July 1 marks the effective date of many of the laws considered and passed during the session. Prescott recently met with The Herald-Chronicle to reflect on his first term as a legislator, which he described as a learning experience in the workings of state government.

Probably the biggest struggle during the session, he said, was the $13.7 billion state budget that ended with passage of a one-cent sales tax.

While Parkinson described the budget as responsible, Prescott said it was “ample.”

“We could have done some things better,” Prescott said. “But the final product, I’m in agreement with the governor.”

He said he didn’t agree with some of the governor’s line item vetoes, “but the product as a whole, I’m satisfied and think it’s adequate.”

Pertaining to the budget, the governor’s vetoes included a transfer of public broadcasting subsidies to the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs, a cut in state officers’ pay, a limitation on state employees’ out of state travel, and a plan to require school districts to uniformly report finances.

In regard to school funding, Prescott said he was happy with the outcome.

“The budget did take care of the schools,” he said, noting school funding levels will remain the same as last year, despite the loss of federal stimulus funds.

“All that (stimulus) money was totally replaced with state money,” he said.

Other benefits to schools

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included a provision that all state payments to schools must now be made on time, and authorization for school districts to have a larger ending balance.

Prescott said he was disappointed in the veto of uniform school accounting.

“We should have a standard reporting that’s common in all districts, that a layman legislator should be able to compare which schools are more efficient than others,” he said.

Prescott said he was one of the few legislators that voted for the appropriations bill but voted against a one-cent sales tax to raise more revenue. He said part of the reason for his opposition to a sales tax was due to the increase in the budget.

“With this budget, we have 3.8 percent more spending than last year, so it’s an expansion of a budget in a crisis time,” Prescott said. “That was one of the hardest things for me to swallow.”

He said that due to the last-minute budget development, other cuts or possible revenue increases were not considered.

“Something I pushed late in the session was the sale of assets,” he said. “You could liquidate assets to raise funds.”

He said the state “is sitting on over $13 billion worth of assets. A lot of it is just open land easements they didn’t use in the last century. They’ve just been left, not on the tax rolls.”

“We were projecting a one percent sales of those (assets) would generate $130 million and would have taken away two-thirds of the one-cent sales tax,” he said.

He said another revenue generating idea that was left behind came from state Senator Anthony Hensley, who had suggested a “high end tax bracket,” that would raise taxes on those who made over $200,000 a year.

“I didn’t think it would affect too many people in Osage County,” he said.

But, he said, the cost cutting ideas came too late in the session for the Legislature to act on, opening the way for the sales tax approval.

“The late in the session panic forced it through,” he said.

He noted the one-percent sales tax is the largest tax increase in Kansas history.

“The Governor says with the sales tax we’re increasing jobs, and he’s saying public jobs,” Prescott said. “When you take 300 million dollars out of the Kansas economy, I don’t see how that can enhance employment.”

One reason he voted against the sales tax was because it only had a three-year sunset provision.

“Especially with a new governor coming, and a new administration no matter what party, I would have liked to seen a one-year (sunset) on it,” he said.

He noted that although a portion of the sales tax has a time limit, .4 of the tax will help fund the $3.3 billion, 10-year transportation plan recently signed into law. Although part of the transportation plan is funded with federal funds, $1.7 billion of it is “state manufactured money through bonded indebtedness,” he said.

He said he had hoped the budget could have been dealt with earlier in the session, and some of the issues that took up legislators’ time were a source of frustration.

“We saw the $3.3 billion highway bill late at night on the last night of the session,” he said. “We had all session to do that, while we’re dealing with K2 (synthetic) marijuana, little bluestem (now the state grass), naming bridges, recognizing people, all these other things.”

He said small business owners were the “net losers” during the session, with various new fees and other restrictions now imposed. One of those was the statewide smoking ban in public places.

“I voted against that because I thought it was kind of biased that state owned casinos were held out,” he said, also pointing to exemption to the ban for private clubs.

“So the elite has exempted themselves out, while the average business owner has no choice,” he said.

Prescott said one thing he worked hardest on was an employment security act that guaranteed unemployment funds would be maintained while not raising rates employers pay for unemployment insurance.

“We drafted legislation that would put a cap on it, hopefully keeping employers from laying people off because the unemployment (insurance) rates were so high,” he said.

Other issues that wasted time were those Prescott termed as morality issues.

“We did an awful lot of those,” he said.

One was a proposed restriction on sexually oriented businesses. Although Prescott first voted against the restrictions and then in favor to get it off the floor, “I think they were unwarranted restrictions on businesses, when we didn’t have any problems.”

That bill ended up dying in the Senate after a tie vote.

He said he agreed with several safety issues that will become law, including a texting while driving ban, helmets for motorcycle passengers, and driving under the influence law changes.

He also voted for a new seatbelt law that will allow law enforcement to stop drivers on the sole basis that they are not wearing a seatbelt. He said that federal funds that came with the law helped make his decision, but he believes seat belt use should be encouraged.

“It’s one of the most effective safety devices we have,” he said. He said he discussed the issue with Kansas Highway Patrol officials.

“They showed me statistics on rollover accidents,” he said. “Survivability (with seat belt use) was so dramatic you can’t deny it.”

He said his concern with the law is the inability to detect whether someone is using a seatbelt, and the possibility of law enforcement abuse of the law for racial profiling.

“I hope it is used more in education and training than on the enforcement side,” he said.

He said that although getting through the session was stressful, the most fun part of his job as legislator was meeting with constituents and giving tours of the capitol.

“That was very enjoyable,” he said.

He said he also learned that no matter the issue “it’s all important to somebody.”

With his first term as legislator coming to an end, next up is a new campaign, as he has already filed to run for his office again; the primary election is set for Aug. 3.

“Campaigning is not always fun, but I look forward to meeting people,” he said. “But, I’ve got to get my farming done first.”