It's Time to Be Tough - March 14, 2017
Many people across this country, as well as here in Kansas, are clamoring for strong leaders.  Who will have the courage to speak up?  Who will stand up for the truth?  Who will fight when the going gets tough?  
 
In a world where grand deal-making and compromise are often heralded as the noblest of political virtues, it can be tempting for those elected to office as conservatives to believe that such things are required to be a good leader.  This is why those who campaigned against tax increases end up voting for them, and why spending always goes up, not down, and government always gets bigger, not smaller.  More often than not, the grand deal is simply a less-bad version of what the left wants. 

This is also what frustrates the public, as it always seems like Republicans are giving away the farm with nothing in return.  Take education for example.  Every year, nearly without fail, the Kansas Legislature has spent more money on education than the year before, to the point where schools are able to afford massive salaries for administrators.  Yet in the past, have you seen conservative solutions emerge as part of those deals that would give children a better education, such as school choice?  No.

What we need is not mere leadership, but principled leadership, that recognizes while compromise and deals may be part of the path, that path must always be headed towards the truth.  Principled leadership means standing up for policies that are working and persuading our friends who disagree, rather than cowering in the face of the media narrative that something is unpopular.  Principled leadership also means recognizing that sometimes losing a vote when fighting for the right thing is better than winning a vote when fighting for the wrong thing.

In Topeka, principled conservatives face a math problem.  In each chamber, our numbers don't even quite add up to one-third of the body.  Democrats and left-wing Republicans make up a coalition that adds up to a majority on certain subjects, as seen by the recent votes on taxes.  That coalition is at, or close to, veto-proof.  Because of that coalition, there are those who, quite understandably, want to craft a "fix" that can earn the votes of enough conservative legislators to gain a majority.  The problem is that "fix" is going to be a liberal fix, so it's really no fix at all.

From my vantage point, the situation presents an opportunity. Rather than crafting a bill that is not based on conservative principles, but would garner enough to earn 63 and 21 votes, I think we should stand firm on conservative principles, and then passionately advocate for those beliefs, both with our colleagues and in the public square with our constituents.  If we can persuade enough people to win the day in Topeka, that's great!  If not, we simply head to the ballot box again in 2018.

Elections are fluid.  In 2006, Sebelius won by 20 points.  In 2010, Brownback won by 20 points.  In 2014, it was nearly a tie, but Brownback eked out a win.  The point is, the electorate will sway, which is all the more reason we must stand firm.

I am presenting this case for principled leadership in light of our recent discussions about school finance, about taxes, and about the budget.  All three subjects present opportunities to make the argument for free market principles and limited government with our more liberal colleagues in both chambers as well as the people we serve.   

Let's look at each specific issue.
 
Adopting A Student-Focused Education Model

The first opportunity for principled leadership is right before us with the recent decision in the  Gannon v. Kansas case by the Kansas Supreme Court, which issued its  ruling that K-12 education funding is unconstitutional.  While I strongly disagree with the Court again going beyond its constitutional bounds and delving into policy making, they nonetheless cited some facts that were worth noting.

As a basis for their claim that the current funding system is inadequate, they cited the fact that 25 percent of all Kansas students aren't meeting Rose Standards, a series of targets students must meet to be considered at "grade level."  They particularly were concerned with certain groups, such as the disabled, Hispanic-American students and African-American students.  Here are a couple notes from their opinion:

  • The Court highlighted the decline in reading performance between 2011-12 and 2015-16.  It said, "During this same time frame, the percentage for all students performing below grade level initially was 12.4% with 23.3% in 2015-2016. Stated simply and starkly, while Kansas fails to provide nearly one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with the basic skill of reading, the proficiency data for 2015-2016 reflected a continuation of an achievement gap between all students and the subgroups that existed under the standards set for the 2011-2012 school year." 
     
  • The Court said, "We acknowledge that some subgroups can have their own special challenges to achievement. See Morath, 490 S.W.3d at 859-60 ("The plaintiffs concede that economically disadvantaged students face challenges outside the schools that affect their educational achievement."). However, their particular hurdles do not satisfactorily explain why today nearly one-fourth of all Kansas students are not proficient in reading; the panel held the fuller explanation lies in a finance system that is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public school students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose and presently codified in K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 72-1127. When multiplying the total number of students statewide in 2015-2016 by the rate of those below proficient in reading (23.3%), the result is approximately 113,000 students." 
     
  • The Court highlighted the decline in math performance between 2011-12 and 2015-16.  "During this same time frame KSDE reported the percentage for all students performing below grade level initially was 14.1% - with 26.3% in 2015-2016. To again state it starkly, Kansas still is failing to provide more than one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with the basic skill of math."
 
Essentially, the court admits that despite the State of Kansas pumping record amounts of funding into our schools, they are simply not serving wide groups of students.  While it should be noted that "Rose Standards" are nowhere in the Kansas Constitution, this is still a stunning admission.

In fact, when it comes to school finance, the only thing the Kansas Constitution says is, "The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state," but the term "suitable" is not defined.  In addition, the terms "adequacy" and "equity," as well as the Rose Standards are not in the Kansas Constitution, but are what the Court has decided to use to issue decisions on this matter.

Of course, the media and the left are celebrating the ruling and are already clamoring for massive additional spending and even higher taxes than were rejected two weeks ago.  The interesting point is that the Kansas Supreme Court did not call for additional money.  In fact, the Court said, "Regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education required by Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution."

What the Supreme Court did do was mandate that the Legislature create a new, equitable and adequate school finance formula by June 30 (when the current block grant funding formula expires), but the leadership in the Legislature had announced that was the intention anyway.
 
This is where the opportunity for principled leadership comes in.  Rather than trying to draft a "least bad" solution that compromises with the left and dumps yet another round of money into a system that under-serves  so many students, we should take our focus away from the 'system-based' mindset that has governed us for 25 years and instead adopt a "student-based" model that focuses on the needs of the individual student.

Such a model calls out for school choice.

Students learn in different ways and as a state, we shouldn't trap students in schools that are not giving them the tools they need to succeed - including the subgroups cited by the Court. Parents should be given the ability to choose the school best suited for their child's individual needs. That calls out for school choice of some form.  School choice already exists throughout the country in various forms, from vouchers to education savings accounts to tax credits to tax deductions. In fact, Kansas currently has a limited tax credit program on the books.

School choice has been proven to be popular and proven to work, such as in Wisconsin.  In fact, school choice programs are a growing trend across the country. There are 25 operating voucher programs in 14 states- AR, FL, GA, IN, LA (2), ME, MD, MS (2), NC (2), OH (5), OK, UT, VT, WI (4) - and Washington, D.C.  There are four Educational Savings Accounts programs in four states:  AZ, FL, MS, and TN.   There are 21 tax-credit scholarship programs in 17 states- AL, AZ (4), FL, GA, IN, IA, KS, LA, MT, NH, NV, OK, PA (2), RI, SC, SD, VA.  There are five individual tax credit programs in five states- AL, IL, IA, MN, SC.  There are four individual tax deduction prog rams in four states-IN, LA, MN, and WI. ( http://www.edchoice.org/resource-hub/fast-facts/)

The emergence of school choice programs around the country should encourage Kansas Legislators not to be afraid to continue to explore school choice as a solution.  However, even as we do so, the principle behind school choice is not primarily about meeting standards as set forth by an activist Court, or research studies, or any other government demand.  Instead, it should be about parental empowerment. 

Note this article (emphasis mine):

As this editorial by Robert Pondiscio in the U.S. News & World Report says, "That's really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the "evidence" that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child's talents or interests or your family's values and traditions, the question of whether school choice "works" has already been answered. It's working perfectly for you."
 
We should empower parents across Kansas to make the same choices that best fit the talents and needs of the child, and not continue to impose a one-size-fits-all system on them.  Yes, the traditional public school can and should be an option, and that option should be quality schools, but it is arrogant to continually assert our focus is parents and their children's learning needs, but adopt a funding system which says something else.

Remember the Taxpayer:  The Small Business Incentive is Working

Forces on the left and members of both parties in Topeka are bound and determined to repeal the small business incentive.  Not open to compromise to protect even the smallest business, they have inserted terminology like "loophole" to distort the truth and make it seem like the policy is not only unfair, but somehow an accident.  They have been so aggressive that some who favor the policy are anxious about defending it and seem willing to cast it aside.

I will defend it.  I did so at your doorstep this fall and will do so again now.  I believe the policy is fair and it clearly is working - in fact, it is the centerpiece of the surge we are seeing in employment. 

It's fair.   A tax incentive is fair if it's available to everyone.  The small business incentive, unlike many incentives that are targeted to big business, or only certain businesses by trade or geography, it is available to anyone in Kansas who starts a small business.  Even if you have a traditional job with a W2 income statement, you can choose to start a side business that would be an LLC.  It is an entrpreneurship incentive.
 
It's working.  Since its implementation, small business startups in Kansas have spiked.  Kansas unemployment is at its lowest in 15 Years, and those same small businesses the left criticizes are driving that statistic. From this article : " Pass-through entities created 36,135 private sector jobs in Kansas between 2013 and 2014, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau."   
 
If this incentive get repealed, it would be incredibly unfortunate, particularly when the news regarding increases in national job growth are coming out.  Things are turning around in Kansas too, as seen by the last four consecutive months of revenues exceeding estimates. 

Of course, the forces of the left aren't stopping at business taxes.  They're also attempting to increase taxes on individuals, through rate increases and gas tax increases.  One of my colleagues this week passionately pleaded for an increase in tobacco taxes, before voting against the bill which contained the policy she favored. 

What makes the repeal discussion on business taxes most aggravating is the fact we have high taxes already. Business pays a higher rate than residents on property taxes, and everyone's property taxes are soaring as a result of unfair and burdensome assessment increases, compelling people into the cumbersome process of appeal.  Sales taxes are also very high, up to 10% in some areas, due to a combination of state and local taxes.  We have tax incentives that benefit everything from shopping centers to airplanes.  The left wants to control how your money is spent and they won't stop this session until they get it!

The current debate is an opportunity to tell the truth.  While some will claim that cutting income taxes isn't working, I believe we must talk about how it is driving our economic recovery.  While some will try to "fix" what's not broken by increasing taxes, I believe we should talk about how taxes are still too high in Kansas and how we should not be taxing something we want more of - productivity.  While some will talk about "fairness" in defense of their favorite tax increase, I believe we must talk about how the real unfairness is in our property tax system.


We Need to Stop Spending So Much Of
Your Money

One of the greatest myths to come out of Topeka in the last couple years is that we have cut so much money that there isn't anything left to cut.  That is simply not the case.
 
Yes, the rate of spending is much lower than it was under the previous administration, and that's a great thing.  The governor and previous legislatures deserve credit in adopting more modest budgets and taking steps to bring about more efficiency.
 
But, more needs to be done.  Rather than commissioning efficiency studies we then largely ignore, we need to adopt the recommendations those studies contained.  Rather than kicking the can down the road regarding education (both K-12 and higher) spending and thereby ignoring 2/3 of the state budget, we need to finally address the elephant in the room - why school choice is necessary.  Rather than basically claiming the state is some well-oiled machine that is running without any waste, we need to continue to look at everything we do, why we do it, and how we pay for it. 

The incentive to spend more and grow government is insidious and exists at all levels of government - and we need to get serious about draining the swamp that leads to corruption.

On the bright side, the current debate presents an opportunity to tell the truth about what's really going on.

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Conclusion: It's Time to be Tough

It's no fun being in the minority, like conservatives are in Topeka. Some have even joked that we're truly the minority of the minority - that while conservatives may have 1/3 of each chamber, the true number of legislators who will fight to uphold our platform and trumpet the truth are far fewer.  They may not be far off.

However, we need to remain tough and fight for the truth.  It would be one thing if we had 19 votes in the Senate and it would take a small concession to get a largely conservative policy enacted at 21 votes.  But that's not the reality.  The amount of compromise and selling out that would be required to achieve 21 votes is not worth it.  I do not believe you sent me to Topeka to vote for higher taxes and higher spending.  I will continue to fight for free market principles, limited government and traditional values.

Thank you.

In honor of your liberty,

Mary Pilcher-Cook 
Paid for by Pilcher Cook Senate Campiagn ; Sheila Wodtke, Treasurer
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