Lee Tafanelli on the Kansas Legislature
by Clarke Davis
The U.S. Senate confirmed Lee Tafanelli’s new rank as brigadier general before it adjourned Dec. 22 and he received his general’s star in a ceremony in Topeka Dec. 28.
The people of the 47th District elected Tafanelli to a sixth term as their representative in November, but Governor-elect Sam Brownback has tapped him for the post of adjutant general.
He will soon vacate his elective office and his office as head of the Kansas Army National Guard to preside in his new position over all state armed forces and direct Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
When he hands the baton to his successor as state representative he has this sage advice:
“Don’t rely on any preconceived ideas on any issue, be open minded, listen to both sides, and base your decision on the impact it has on the people you represent,” he said.
To describe the coming session, he said everything will be driven by “the budget, the budget, the budget.”
“All policies are going to be driven by the budget,” he said.
The Legislature will find the 2012 budget to be the most difficult in recent years because of the loss of the federal stimulus money that the state has relied on the past couple of years. That stimulus money will not be there, but instead there is expected to be a shortfall of $500 million in state revenue.
Tafanelli met with the county superintendents Dec. 9, the same day it was announced he would be the next adjutant general.
“I think they understand the times we are in,” he said. “I told them I did not expect there to be additional money for K-12 and they would be lucky to hang onto what they have.”
But the real debate that looms will be urban vs. rural, according to Tafanelli. The number of urban legislators now outnumber those from the rural areas.
Those urban legislators look at Jefferson County with less than 20,000 population and ask, “Why do you have six school districts?”
“You are going to have to get really good at working within the education industry on defending that,” Tafanelli said.
After redistricting, which takes place before the next election, rural representation will have an even smaller voice in the statehouse. He expects the loss of three or four more rural representatives.
There is also an element who believes that 52 percent of the state budget is enough for education and would begin to cap state aid leaving additional funding to local districts.
Lawsuits have again been filed over school funding and Tafanelli said the discussion will center around the words “suitable” and “equitable,” terms in the constitution that will be left to the court to define.
Tafanelli was serving in Iraq in 2005, the last time a court decision was handed to the Legislature. A bill to increase funding over a period of three years was passed based on a strong economy. It was funded for two years, but the state was too broke to continue into the third year before cuts started to be made.
Local districts (and the state) rely on property values, which Tafanelli said is a good model when assessed valuation is increasing.
“However, there is no mechanism in the state funding aspect to supplant what is happening in a declining assessed value market,” he said.
“We are living in interesting times,” he said, noting that the economic travails extend to nearly every state and the nation.
“We have to decide that whatever we do is sustainable. The day of putting things off and letting the next generation pay for it and using hope as a strategy are over,” he said. “We have to be real about that. It’s going to force us to do things a lot differently.”
Passing bills through the Legislature is no longer his job. The general will now concern himself with global war and state disasters.
Kansas has 7,800 Army and Air National Guard members with 1,200 serving overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout Africa.
“We got 180 back in the state Dec. 23,” he said, “including a couple of brothers — the Wellmans — from Meriden. I met them when they got off the airplane in Wisconsin.”
A week ago he bid farewell to an agribusiness development team that left for Afghanistan to replace a team that has been there.
“We call them our combat farmers,” the general said.
They are trained at Kansas State University to help develop the agricultural program in Afghanistan. A team consists of about 65 personnel that includes combat security. On the team are scientists that specialize in hydrology, animal science, and plant and grain science.
This is the third rotation that arrived over there on Christmas day. A fourth contingent has begun training at KSU and will be deployed in about 10 months.
Those serving in Africa are there mostly to work directly with other military units to provide assistance and training in various countries.
A replacement for his 47th district seat had not been named at the time of this interview last week at the state defense building.
“I hope they (the GOP leaders) act quickly. Someone needs to be here the first day of the session,” he said.
“It’s been a tremendous honor and privilege to represent the people of the 47th district the last 10 years. I will cherish that for the rest of my life,” he said.
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