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Archive for Friday, January 4, 2008

Lawmakers face hotbed of political drama in ‘08

January 4, 2008

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— An explosive sex scandal, tough-to-solve problems, and election year politics will be the main ingredients mixing it up this year at the state level.

Lawmakers returning for their legislative session Jan. 14 will spend more than three months hammering out new laws and building records to show off on the campaign trail.

Awaiting their arrival in the Statehouse are health care reforms, increased spending requests for education and social services, numerous hot-button items, and a new political atmosphere.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has spent her career working with, maneuvering in and around, and defeating Republicans.

But this year, the GOP, the dominant party in the Legislature, has added oomph because of a sex scandal that forced Republican-turned-Democrat Attorney General Paul Morrison to resign. In addition, legislative leaders, who are Republicans, have been unhappy with Sebelius' support of a decision to reject two coal-fired power plants in western Kansas.

How Sebelius, House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, and Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, get along will be a key issue this session.

And even without the political drama, Kansas faces numerous seemingly intractable issues that will require heavy lifting. Here's a sample:

Health care

Approximately 300,000 Kansans are uninsured, and the state's health scorecard has fallen in national reports. The Kansas Health Policy Authority has recommended 21 ways that it says will increase coverage, make Kansans healthier and reduce costs. Two proposals will generate the most headlines - a proposed increase in the cigarette tax of 50 cents per pack, and a statewide ban on smoking in public, indoor places.

Sebelius said she supports the cigarette tax increase and smoking ban. "It's a win-win," she said of the tax increase because it raises funds dedicated to treating health problems caused by smoking and by increasing the cost of cigarettes, it keeps some young people from ever picking up the habit.

Energy

The Sebelius administration rejected 1,400 megawatts of coal-fired electricity because of climate change concerns. But what's next? Kansans receive 75 percent of their energy from carbon dioxide producing coal.

Senate President Morris and House Speaker Neufeld said in a letter, "The Kansas economy relies on several key industries, including cattle, oil and gas, aviation, construction, all of which produce CO2. Does the governor and her administration intend to regulate the CO2 output of those industries as well? We hope not."

Meanwhile, coal supporters have appealed rejection of the plants to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Education

Higher education is seeking an 18 percent budget increase, and public school officials say more money is needed to help the state train and retain more teachers.

But amid calls to increase spending, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, which advocates for less government spending, launched a campaign urging lawmakers to limit any spending increase to inflation plus the increase in state population.

Neufeld welcomed the campaign. "It will not be easy, but I believe the Kansas Legislature, the governor and state agencies can find ways to tighten state spending," he said.

Social services

The Big Tent coalition will fight for increased funding to ensure that people who want to leave nursing homes can receive services they need in their community and homes. The coalition also has said it will work for 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.

Immigration

Expect a full-throttle debate as lawmakers prepare bills to revoke the business license and impose fines on businesses found to have knowingly employed an illegal immigrant.

Without tougher laws, state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, said she fears Kansas could become a "safe harbor" for illegal immigrants. "With so many other tremendous expenses looming before us, we cannot continue to foot the bill for illegal immigrants," she said.

And there probably will be votes on whether to repeal Kansas law that allows in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who have been in Kansas at least three years, graduated from a Kansas high school and promise to seek citizenship.

Driving

Health and insurance officials and child advocates want to increase the age for obtaining a learner's permit for driving from 14 to 15; raising the age to get a restricted license from 15 to 16; restricting the number of passengers in a young driver's vehicle; and limiting driving times. Pushback on this proposal has come from several rural lawmakers who say youngsters in those areas need to be able to drive at an early age.

Hot buttons

Anti-abortion advocates have vowed to try to tighten state restrictions on late-term abortions, as well as ban taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. Some have also vowed to try to prohibit domestic partner registries, such as the one adopted last year by the city of Lawrence.

Gambling

A new state law that would allow four state-owned and operated resort casinos, plus slot machines at horse and dog tracks, is under legal review. A state district court is expected to rule by February on the constitutionality of the law. It is likely that decision would be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Coming Saturday: Lawrence School District.

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