Archive for Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Legislature should limit major initiatives

February 8, 2012

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It would appear that the governor and his staff members wish to remake some of the most essential and complex aspects of state government during this year’s legislative session. He has already given the Legislature plans to remake the state tax system and the school finance system, transform the present state retirement system (KPERS) from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan, and put a cap on state spending through limiting the state’s ability to spend additional revenues beyond a certain fixed percentage.

It would appear that all of these new initiatives are to be debated and voted on during the few months that the Legislature sits. And, of course, all of the regular business of the Legislature, including crafting a state budget, must be achieved in this short time span. In addition to all of this, legislators must deal with pressure from various groups to enact legislation that they want to see, seemingly constant pressure from Secretary of State Kobach to make Kansas a poster child for anti-voting fraud legislation, whether we need it or not, and now the prospect of an investigation by the Shawnee County district attorney into whether a series of dinners hosted by the governor violated the state’s open meeting laws.

I have lived in Kansas for the past 18 years and I have watched legislative activity in the state quite closely for most of that time. I have never had the sense that the Kansas Legislature is a marvel of efficiency or speed. It seems to me that the Legislature often gets bogged down in debates over the less essential legislative proposals it considers. Social conservatives also put pressure on the Legislature virtually every session and their proposals take up time.

In most years that I can recall, the Legislature has rarely completed its work on the state budget until the closing hours of the session. So, I have to ask a serious question: What is the likelihood that the 2012 Legislature, faced with some of the most radical proposals to change the nature of state government and state government financing it has ever seen, can possibly give the sort of serious consideration to each of these proposals that they demand? I think the answer is obvious. It’s not possible.

Given the very low likelihood that the Legislature can make reasoned, informed decisions about the governor’s proposals during the current session, what are the alternatives? One possibility is that the Legislature will simply not be able to act on many of the proposals and will either defeat them or defer them for study by interim committees and action in later years. This wouldn’t be so terrible.

The other alternative, which I think would not be at all desirable, would be for the Legislature to take definitive action without adequate study and discussion. In recent years it has become clear that many state and federal legislators often vote on legislation that they have not read and do not understand. To what extent this has occurred here in Kansas, I don’t know, but I fear that the only way our legislators could act on all of the governor’s proposals would be by not being adequately prepared. We have already seen the storm of criticism of the governor’s tax reform proposal — and the rapid movement by many legislators away from supporting it — when the plan’s full impact on the public became known.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the governor wanting to make changes in state government, even radical changes. But major governmental changes should not be made idly or without serious thought and debate. The number and complexity of the proposals now before the Legislature virtually assures that such serious thought and debate will be impossible if all are acted upon.

In my opinion, the leaders in both houses of the Legislature should pick one — or at most two — of the major reform proposals now on their agendas and concentrate on giving these the full and fair consideration they deserve. The others should wait for another year and another legislative session.

Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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