Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence), a candidate for governor in this fall’s election, visited Pittsburg on Tuesday. Davis spoke with local education and business leaders while on the Southeast Kansas swing, and also participated in a fundraiser for Democrats Tuesday evening. While he was in town, Davis also stopped by the Morning Sun to answer a few questions. The following is a transcription of his responses.
Morning Sun: As you’ve been touring the state in preparation for this fall, what are some of the biggest issues you’ve seen or heard from people? Paul Davis: Well, a couple of them. I think people are concerned about the economy and feeling like they’re not seeing a whole lot of forward progress with the economy. A lot of people that are still looking for work or are in jobs where they are underemployed. So there’s still a lot of aggravation with the state of the economy. Additionally, a lot of folks concerned about the public schools. Parents, grandparents have seen the effect of the cuts that have come in past years and are worried that the quality of our schools may be slipping. That’s a big concern. The other issue that I hear a lot about is the rising costs of living in the state. in particular, people are concerned about property taxes. You’ve seen a lot of senior citizens who are on fixed incomes that have seen their property tax bill continue to rise. They’re wondering if there’s ever an end in sight. In addition to that, the sales tax went up last year. You have parents paying more and more fees to send their child to public school because of the school cuts. You’ve got a child in college, college tuition went up last year. 7.5 percent here at Pittsburg State. And utility rates continue to rise. People are very concerned about the overall costs in the state. MS: One of the big policy changes in the last year or two has been the Brownback tax cuts. If you were elected governor, would you repeal those tax cuts, knowing that repealing tax cuts does not necessarily make somebody the most popular person? PD: I don’t have any proposal to do that. What I do want to do is shift the tax conversation to property taxes. At the time that Gov. Brownback proposed his income tax plan, I also proposed a plan that would have restored school funding and that would have also reduced property taxes. I thought that was really where tax cuts ought to be focused, given that’s the tax that’s gone up the most. Frankly, it’s the tax Kansans hate the most. I’d like to see us shift the conversation onto property taxes. If I’m elected, we’re certainly going to look at a wide variety of policies that have been implemented by the Brownback administration, and make decisions as to whether we want to continue them or not. MS: Another big issue down here, and we asked Gov. Brownback this yesterday, is what are your thoughts on gaming in Southeast Kansas? The requirement bill is sitting at his desk right now. PD: I’ve been a very strong proponent of gaming in Southeast Kansas. I was one of the people that was very involved in putting together the bill that passed in 2007. I’ve been a strong advocate of lowering the threshold so we can get an investor that’s willing to put the money up for a casino. I would like to see a casino constructed in Southeast Kansas, and I’d also like to see the racetrack back up in business. You’ve got a number of facilities, including Camptown, in the state, and we’ve got a strong dog and horse breeding industry in the state. I think we could really benefit economically if we could get those tracks open again. Out of curiosity, what did he say about it? MS: That it had just gotten to his desk and he was going to take a look at it. He also praised the efforts of Sen. LaTurner and our local representatives for getting it passed through the House and the Senate. It’s been a long effort. The other big issue you hear a lot, and another one he mentioned yesterday is transportation. A four-lane highway to Pittsburg, first of all, and then to I-44. What are your thoughts on how to make that happen? PD: This is another issue I’ve been heavily invested in. I was one of those instrumental in passing the T-WORKS program back in 2010. I very much want to see that come to fruition. Not only does it provide economic development opportunities, it also provides a lot of jobs. There were three different economic studies that were performed right before the passage of the plan. All three said that you’d create 175,000 jobs during the life of the plan, the 10-year plan. MS: Are those permanent jobs or are those temporary construction jobs? PD: Some are permanent and some are temporary. But it’s a very significant jobs program for the state. And the problem has been that the T-WORKS program has been raided time and time again. Over $1 billion has been removed from the transportation plan over the past three years. MS: Has that been from T-WORKS or has that been from the KDOT regular budget? I believe that had been from the KDOT regular budget. PD: No, it’s been from the highway fund, which pays for T-WORKS. Really, in essence, that money has been utilized to help subsidize Gov. Brownback’s income tax cuts. And I don’t think we ought to be borrowing money or stealing money from transportation program to pay for tax cuts. In order for us to really realize the economic potential this has, we’ve got to make sure the transportation program is going to continue to be funded. MS: The other big issue, we’ve been doing a series on this all year long, is poverty. Our area, one in five adults is below the federal poverty line. One in four children. That’s obviously a shocking number. PD: It is. MS: What plans or programs or policy changes would you have in mind that could turn the corner on that issue? PD: Well, first of all, I think you have to look at what has happened over the past couple of years. Gov. Brownback’s road map for Kansas set as a goal that we’d reduce the number of children in poverty. What has happened is the number of children in poverty has gone up. Statewide, almost one in four children is living in poverty. The increase we had last year ws the most significant increase in any state in the country. That is indicative of an administration that has developed a number of policies that have hurt people that are in poverty and are trying to get out of it. A number of targeted tax programs to try to help people in poverty have been done away with as a result of the Brownback tax plan. There have been a number of changes to other state services and other welfare programs to try to help people get out of poverty that have really had an adverse effect. What do we need to do about that? There are a number of different issues we need to look at. I think we need to look at restoring some of the tax programs, such as the homestead program that helps renters. I’m hearing from a lot of people that are filing their taxes right now that are used to getting that homestead refund and now they are not getting it anymore. We can look at possible expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which Ronald Reagan called the greatest anti-poverty program that the federal government had ever put forth. Those are some short-term things, but we also need to look at investing in early childhood education and helping those at-risk kids who are in poverty and giving them an opportunity to get out of poverty. The last thing I would say is an economy that is expanding, where there are job opportunities for those that are out of work and who are underemployed is the absolute best solution. You look at how Kansas is performing with regard to our surrounding states, we are lagging behind. The governor’s own council of economic advisors issued in a recent report a number of statistics that demonstrated we’re lagging behind our surrounding states in almost every economic indicator. And we simply have to get this economy moving in the right direction here. People in poverty are going to have opportunities to get out. MS: How do you get the economy moving? One of the Brownback administration’s policies has been the tax cuts, to make us more attractive comparably to other states like Missouri or Oklahoma. But if, as you say, those policies aren’t working, what policies would work to make the state attractive to business or to make the businesses in the state expand? PD: Some of this goes to the nature of what the state is investing in, and what their tax policy is. Our credit rating has been downgraded as a result of the Brownback tax plan. People see the state of Kansas as a credit risk right now. That is not an enticing factor for companies that are looking to relocate. Most businesses are wanting to see a trained workforce, to see good public schools, universities and to seeing a good transportation infrastructure. State investment in education and transportation has gone down the last couple years. It’s a trend that a businessperson that is looking to expand or relocate is going to have a concern with. Let me go back to the workforce training component. I think the state is really lagging far behind in where we need to be in terms of workforce training. That’s not to say that we haven’t done a lot of good things. And there are some good things happening right now. But I think there are a number of models around, in some communities in the state where you have seen the state partner with school districts, community colleges, universities and the business community to create career and technical education centers that are driven to particular industries that exist in the community or the community has natural assets that would allow for expansion. I know this is an issue in Pittsburg in particular, because I’ve talked to business folks here. I think the state needs to take on a more active role in trying to partner with the communities and bring those kinds of alliances to fruition. Beyond that, I think we need to really look at areas where the state has assets and where state government can be a partner. We have to understand there’s not a one size fits all economic solution. This is where I have a good deal of disagreement with the governor. He’s essentially said let’s put all our eggs in one basket and let’s cut taxes for mainly people on the upper end of the income scale, and economic benefits will flow. We’ve seen that’s not working, and I don’t believe it will work. We have to understand that what works in Garden City and Overland Park is not necessarily what works in Pittsburg. This is where the state needs to do a better job of listening to people. Local business people, chambers of commerce, local economic development professionals, as to what works in their community and how the state can be a partner. I hear that all across the state. There’s a lot of frustration in the business community that the Brownback administration doesn’t really understand the unique nature of their local community and just sort of says, ‘These tax cuts are going to be great for you.’ And it’s not working out that way. In other parts of the state, not necessarily the southeast, but you have energy. We’ve got the wind. We’ve got agriculture. We’ve got oil and gas. We’ve got natural gas. Biofuels, biomass. There’s a great deal of potential, I think, for the state to be an energy exporter. MS: One of the things I’m noticing across what you’ve said, is restoring funding, investing, those sort of terms have come up in a lot of your answers. That sounds, to me, like money. Either new revenues or revenue streams where there aren’t currently. Where would those sort of revenues come from? PD: We’ve got to understand that the Brownback tax plan has put the state in the red. We’re going to have to be very disciplined with our expenditures. We’re going to have to be very responsible and frugal. If we have a new casino here, for example, that does create a new revenue stream for the state. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a strong supporter of that. It also creates a revenue stream for Crawford and Cherokee County that could help do some things locally that you like to do. We’re also going to have to, and for these things to work in tandem, we’re goingto have to change the economic approach for the state. We are going to see better results. We are going to see revenues grow over time. And we’ll simply need to see that, because they’re just not growing right now. MS: Do you have any messages for the people of Kansas at this time, given that you’re not only a candidate for governor, but you’re also House Minority Leader? PD: One other issue we touched on a little bit, and that I might touch on a little bit more is certainly the school finance issue. The bill that is now sitting on Gov. Brownback’s desk. After the court decision came out, I put forward a plan that said, ‘Let’s deal with the equalization issue the court, I think, very clearly outlined. Let’s not get into particular pet projects of certain legislators that are not part of the court decision.’ Unfortunately, that’s what happened. This was a time for the governor to exercise some leadership and bring people together and say, ‘Let’s compromise, let’s achieve some consensus.’ He was really nowhere to be found the weekend when the Legislature was really grappling with this issue. Chaos erupted at times. I know right now he is having to deal with the bill that has teachers up in arms, and rightfully so, and I doubt that’s something he’s necessarily wanting to deal with from a political standpoint, but it’s a result that he was really unwilling to sit down with Legislative leaders in a bipartisan manner and say, ‘Let’s deal with the court decision, and let’s move on.’ I don’t know what he’s going to do with the bill. It certainly sounds like he’s going to sign it. I think it’s unfortunate that teachers have found a warrantless attack put upon them by a lot of the legislators who were handpicked by Gov. Brownback. Now, school districts will have an ability to terminate a teacher and not give them a reason as to why they were terminated. I think most reasonable people would agree that if a teacher was going to be removed from their duties, why they would be. It creates this degree of accountability in the system that’s worked. MS: That reminds me of one more question. I believe in Oklahoma, Gov. Fallin is looking at a bill that would ban, on the municipal level, an increase in minimum wage. Wondering your stance, not only on the current minimum wage, but also potential hikes or bans on increases, where you would stand on that? PD: I was really involved in getting the minimum wage raised a few years ago. I think it was 2009. At the time, Kansas had the lowest minimum wage in the country. I think that we ought to look at, and have a serious discussion about increasing minimum wage. We have to understand the vast majority of workers are covered by the federal minimum wage. I want to say at the time, it was only 30,000 or 40,000 people in Kansas actually fell under the state minimum wage. I would have some trepidation about trying to tread on municipalities’ ability to try those issues in their own communities.