Kansas lawmakers leave plenty of issues on the table for wrap-up session

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

? When Kansas lawmakers left Topeka in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 8, they thought they had resolved the thorniest issue of the session by passing a school funding bill that supporters hope will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.

As it turned out, that didn’t work as planned, and lawmakers will have to revisit that issue to fix an $80 million error in the bill when they return for the start of a scheduled nine-day wrap-up session that begins April 26.

Still, lawmakers left a lot of other issues on the table waiting to be resolved before their scheduled final adjournment on May 4. Among them are the state budget, including funding for higher education and foster care; a controversial package of tax cuts; and a bill that would allow people as young as 18 to obtain permits to carry concealed firearms.

Revenue estimates

Much of what happens in the wrap-up session, however, will depend on what happens this Friday, April 20. That’s when the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group — a group of state budget officials and university economists — issues new, official estimates of how much revenue the state can expect to receive in the upcoming fiscal year.

That will form the basis of the final budget bill lawmakers will pass at the end of the session.

So far in the current fiscal year, Kansas has collected roughly $315 million more than the consensus group predicted the last time it revised its estimates in November. Much of that was due to a major tax overhaul that the Legislature passed, over then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto, reversing course on the massive tax cuts he had championed in 2012 and 2013.

Most lawmakers are now expecting the new estimates to be significantly higher. But after several years of tight budgets and allotment cuts dating back to the start of the Great Recession in 2008, including cuts to higher education, there will be stiff competition among various state agencies and programs for a slice of the larger pie.

Higher education

The Kansas Board of Regents, along with all of the state’s public colleges and universities, came into the 2018 session with one priority: full restoration of the 4 percent cuts to higher education that Brownback ordered in 2016.

The total cut for higher education was $30.7 million, which included $10.7 million for the University of Kansas and its Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. Some of that was restored last year, but KU and the Board of Regents still hoped to get the remaining $24 million restored this year.

“Probably not very good,” Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said when asked about the chances of that money being restored.

Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said restoration of the higher education cuts was one of many budget issues the Senate planned to address in the wrap-up session when it works on the final “omnibus” budget bill.

“It’s still in limbo,” she said in a phone interview. “We put off until omnibus doing a partial restoration of their 4 percent cut.”

Child welfare services

Meanwhile, one of Gov. Jeff Colyer’s top priorities is a big increase in funding for child welfare services, including the state’s troubled foster care system.

In January, he and Department for Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel announced they would seek a $16.5 million increase over two years. Much of that would pay for the hiring of 20 additional social workers and other child welfare staff, as well as investigative staff to help track down children who have gone missing from their foster homes.

The Senate passed a preliminary budget bill March 27 that included much of that funding, including the 20 new positions.

The House’s preliminary budget bill also includes some of the governor’s request, including the 20 new positions. But the House never voted on that bill. Waymaster said the House may decide to put off any budget debate until it passes a final omnibus bill.

Tax cuts

Another factor that could affect how much revenue the state will have to work with in future years is a tax bill that the Senate passed on the final day of the regular session April 7 and which the House is expected to take up during the wrap-up session.

The Senate Substitute for House Bill 2228 is intended to prevent the state from reaping a windfall from the recently enacted federal tax reform law, which limits how much money people can deduct on their federal returns for things like home mortgage interest and taxes paid to state and local governments.

The Senate bill would essentially “de-couple” the state tax code from the federal code by allowing people to continue taking full deductions for those expenses, even if they are limited on federal returns.

It would also expand the state standard deduction by 25 percent, raising it to $3,750 for single individuals and $9,375 for married couples filing jointly, resulting in a sizeable tax cut for people who do not itemize their deductions.

Although no official estimate of how much that bill would cost the state was available as recently as Friday, unofficial estimates have said it could be as much as $494 million over five years.

Lawmakers also have other tax bills they could consider during the wrap-up session, including one pending in the House that would increase the state’s ability to collect retail sales taxes on internet sales.

Gun legislation

Despite widespread public outcry for stricter gun control laws this year, the Kansas House and Senate are poised to act on a bill that would actually expand the ability for people in Kansas to carry concealed firearms.

Shortly before lawmakers adjourned the regular session, a House and Senate conference committee reached a tentative agreement on House Bill 2042, which would allow people with concealed carry permits from other states to legally carry their firearms in Kansas, thus enabling Kansans with permits to legally carry their weapons in other states.

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, said in an interview that the compromise bill includes a House-passed amendment that lowers the minimum age for obtaining a permit to 18 in Kansas.

Currently, the minimum age for carrying concealed firearms in Kansas is 21, and the state does not require people to go through training or obtain permits to do so.

In addition, a bill that would make it easier for school districts to allow teachers to carry firearms in the classroom is also pending.

The House Insurance Committee held a hearing March 27 on House Bill 2789, but has not yet taken action on the bill.