Topeka For the first time in years, state lawmakers start their legislative session with no imminent crisis before them.
The state's fiscal foundation has recovered from the post-9/ll revenue collapse, and the dismissal last year of the long-running school finance lawsuit gives the Legislature some room to run.
"It's certainly nice to have school finance not be the dominant issue this year, and I'm very pleased that the economy is doing well," Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said in preparation for today's start of the 2007 session.
But state leaders say there are numerous unmet needs - many of them having piled up over the years as officials wrangled over school funding and tight state budgets.
An example of this has been the deferral of needed repairs at universities, community colleges and state buildings.
"We've been talking about this for the last four years," Morris said. "It's time to quit talking about it and find a way to address the issue."
And there are numerous other crucial issues that need to be addressed to move Kansas forward, officials say.
More than 300,000 Kansans have no health insurance, some rural areas are losing population at alarming rates, and all leaders agree Kansas needs to implement programs that increase energy efficiency and handle environmental resources more wisely.
"We have a lot of work to do," Morris said.
Energy, natural resources
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other state officials say Kansas needs to do more to promote renewable energy sources, improve power transmission systems and encourage efficiency and conservation.
"I think we have some real opportunities not only to make Kansas more energy independent and energy secure but also to become an (energy) exporter once again," Sebelius said.
Her comments come as state officials are deciding whether to grant a permit for a combined 2,100-megawatt coal-fired project in western Kansas that has caused an uproar in the environmental community and increased calls for more renewable energy, such as wind power.
During the session, lawmakers will consider requiring utility companies to conduct energy audits to help customers decide the costs and benefits of purchasing more energy-efficient appliances, and whether to grant tax credits to the people who do buy them.
Efforts also are under way to increase funding to retire irrigation water rights to protect the Ogallala Aquifer in western Kansas and to finance dredging of drinking water lakes that are filling with silt.
The problem, according to higher education officials, is that tight budgets during the past few years have forced their institutions to put off needed repairs and maintenance projects.
The state's six universities have identified a backlog of $727 million worth of electrical, plumbing and structural projects. State leaders say they will introduce plans to get a handle on the problem, which escalates each year.
But most agree it will take years to deal with the maintenance list.
"Whatever plan we come up with now will probably be like the highway plan, where we designate exactly what projects get funded," said new House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls.
Health and social services
Like most states, Kansas is trying to figure out ways to expand coverage to residents who are uninsured.
Sebelius has said she will push for a plan to insure the approximately 15,000 children up to 5 years old who have no insurance.
The Big Tent Coalition, which represents dozens of social service advocacy groups, has a list of proposals that includes increased funding to take care of 1,200 Kansans with developmental disabilities who are on waiting lists to get home- and community-based services.
The group also wants an examination of the adequacy of mental health services statewide; a policy that Medicaid funding will follow the recipient into community settings, and an increase in the state minimum wage of $2.65 per hour, which is the lowest of the 43 states that have a state minimum wage and is below the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.
Sebelius and some key lawmakers say they want a bill that increases penalties against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. A proposal by state Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, to do that was defeated last year after some businesses expressed concerns about enforcement.
But Sebelius said many businesses are at a competitive disadvantage against businesses that purposely hire illegal immigrants.
"Nobody wants to nail an employer who's trying to follow the law, but I think it's clear we have employers and contractors and others who feel this is a great business advantage to get an illegal work crew, have them do cheap labor. If they get hurt, dump them out and bring somebody else in. And they are competing with folks who are absolutely trying to be in the system," she said.
The Kansas Public Employee Retirement System has 250,000 active and retired members, and $12.2 billion in assets.
But the gap between its assets and future obligations to provide pensions has grown to $5.1 billion, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.
To lasso what is called the unfunded actuarial liability, state officials have proposed increasing the retirement age for new state employees and offering them an optional defined contribution plan like a 401(k), where employees decide how much of their pay to save.
A years-long battle over school finance was somewhat resolved last year when the Kansas Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit after the Legislature approved a three-year, $466 million increase for schools. Earlier, the court had declared the finance system unconstitutional because it shortchanged all students, especially those in poorer districts.
With state revenues on the upswing, concerns that there wouldn't be enough money to pay for the future years of the plan have proven unwarranted.
Sebelius has said she would like to add to the plan by phasing in full-day kindergarten statewide and increasing preschool programs.
State officials will wrangle over a reorganization of Kansas' 16 schools that offer vocational education and prepare thousands of students each year for the job market.
Some officials want a more uniform system since some of the schools stand alone, and some are assigned to public school districts and some to community colleges.
"There is no cohesive system of governance or funding," Morris said. "It's an area of critical importance," he said.
Studies show four out of five jobs in Kansas require some training after high school but not necessarily a college degree.
Expect the annual debate over whether to expand casino gambling in Kansas. Four American Indian casinos, which don't share revenue with the state, operate in northeast Kansas. Meanwhile, casinos built right across the state border in Missouri and Oklahoma siphon Kansas dollars.
"We continue to ship hundreds of millions of dollars out of Kansas, and I'm a believer that given the opportunity to capture those dollars here, we should take it," Sebelius said.
With the Kansas Lottery up for renewal this year, the odds of trying to attach a casino gambling expansion proposal to it are close to a sure bet.
The biggest complaint from Kansans in the past election were about robo calls, according to Carol Williams, the executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
The commission has a legislative wish list that includes requiring that the recorded messages identify who is sponsoring the communication.
The commission also has proposed greater and more timely disclosure of campaign funding, and that issue advocacy organizations disclose who is paying for their ads and how much the sponsors are spending. Currently, spending from issue advocacy groups goes unreported.
Budget and taxes
Kansas' growing economy is fueling a surge in state tax collections of $300 million more for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, than the last fiscal year.
The increase is expected to cover the recent school funding measure and more.
Meanwhile, Sebelius and leading Republicans have called for a cut in the tax that businesses pay to cover unemployment benefits.
Kansas had about $615 million in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, fueled by a growing economy and lower jobless rates. The fund had dropped to $218 million in 2004.
To keep up with the goings-on during the 2007 legislative session, here are some telephone numbers and Web sites.
In addition, the Journal-World will provide comprehensive coverage and breaking news at www.ljworld.com.
The Journal-World's Topeka bureau phone number is (785) 354-4222, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
¢ www.kansas.gov is the general state of Kansas Web site with links to state agencies and numerous other resources.
¢ www.kslegislature.org is the Legislature's Web site and provides information on the session. You can look up bills, track their progress and get committee information. You can also find out who your legislator is and how to get in touch with him or her.
¢ www.kslib.info is the Kansas State Library Web site that has links to governmental Web sites that cover just about every issue in the public domain.
To check on a bill or leave a message for a legislator by telephone, call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-432-3924.