The final Legislative Dialogue was held Monday evening at the Potter-Beath Activity Center in the First Church of the Nazarene.
Area lawmakers who attended included 17th District Sen. Jeff Longbine, 60th District Rep. Don Hill, 51st District Rep. Ron Highland and 76th District Rep. Peggy Mast.
Longbine said the final dialogue was important for the both the legislators and their constituents, as it gave each a chance to voice opinions and concerns.
“It’s important for us to give our perspective about how the session ended and why it ended the way it ended,” he said. “It’s also important for us to get feedback from our constituents on what their opinions were, how they felt things went and how we could have done better in representing them.”
Each had a chance to address the audience with their thoughts on the lengthy 2015 legislative session.
Longbine started the discussion by thanking the sponsors of the event and said he was happy to answer questions.
“It was a long session,” he said. “As it wore on and when you had the budget deficit we had, it was hard to find consensus. There were two bills, House Bill 2109 which dealt with consumption taxes and Senate Bill 270 which was designed to fix 2109. These were the two considered during the shutdown session. On 270, we lost a number of items but we gave more cities breathing room on certain taxes.
“I’m concerned going forward. I don’t think we’ve structurally fixed our budget.”
Hill cited concerns with the block grant bill and Medicaid expansion.
“I am concerned for the affects on our schools,” he said. “I am most concerned with the fact that we didn’t get to vote on Medicaid expansion. A positive development was that letters had been sent to the governor (Sam Brownback) advocating for Medicaid expansion … there are three bills still alive for this. We will continue to work for this, and I’m hopeful.”
Mast said this session was the longest and most miserable session she has ever had.
“There was nothing that was easy about this year,” she said. “I was just glad we were able to pass a budget. People wondered why we couldn’t get it accomplished sooner. I would like to have seen the LLCs come to the table, the ones which had become tax exempt. We were getting desperate that if we didn’t come to resolution, the governor would have to intercede.”
Highland said the session ended with his most difficult vote ever.
“The governor put us between a rock and hard place,” he said. “He was looking at higher education, which we didn’t like. We ended up with no choice on the vote. I felt our schools and universities would have been crippled and I didn’t want that on my conscience. I agree that, in our next session, we will need to go back and clean up some things. I thought education had been cut enough. I felt that for higher education and K-12, that it didn’t make sense to allow the governor to make further cuts. It was the lessor of two evils.”
The audience next had an opportunity to ask questions of the legislators or voice their concerns.
One constituent said she wouldn’t have wanted to be in any of the legislators shoes. She said she felt the governor bullied everyone like a dictator and asked if anyone had stood up to him to make him take the heat.
The legislators each answered and said they had met with the governor and had voiced their concerns.
“My hope would be that the governor has learned from this session,” answered Hill, and his comment was met with laughter from the audience. “I met with the governor during the session and said publicly that I thought he was in a state of denial. He’s been here for five years and hasn’t done as well as anyone of us might have hoped. But I also think it should be about more of what we all stand for and not who we are against.”
Longbine also shared his experience with Brownback.
“I had a one-on-one meeting with him and challenged him to solve problems,” he said. That meeting did not go the way I wanted it to. I got a little rambunctious on the senate floor. I was disappointed. I was disappointed in the product, the threats of veto ... disappointed in the outcome.”
Another constituent voiced concern over having no control over issues.
“I went in different groups and offered to find a mediator to try to resolve the situation sooner,” Mast answered. “By that point everyone was so entrenched. We also had people missing and then the votes didn’t come through.”
Longbine said the forum was a good way to wrap up the dialogue session.
“Discussions are good and I think that’s what has to happen in order for us to have long-term legislative stability,” he said. “It’s going to take the people telling their legislators what they want. I think we’re all fairly in tune to it. In other districts around the state, I don’t think people are as involved with their legislators. Getting that word out, I think, is extremely important. The people of Kansas want legislative stability. They have good ideas on how to get there. We’re just not getting enough people to vote.”
Dialogues are a series of community political forums organized each year by the Emporia Chamber and Visitors Bureau Government Matters Committee and the League of Women Voters.