A look back at what happened, and what didn’t, in the 2018 legislative session
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Topeka ? Kansas lawmakers wrapped up their 2018 session on Friday after spending 99 calendar days at the Statehouse passing new laws and authorizing new spending that will have far-reaching impacts on the daily lives of Kansans for years to come.
A new school finance plan that adds more than half a billion dollars a year for K-12 schools, a budget that increases spending on higher education and social services and a new law barring people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns are some of the more notable examples.
But in the end, lawmakers chose to leave a number of issues on the table, including a new package of tax cuts and a bill that would have lowered the age for carrying concealed firearms to 18.
“Look at what we did,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, told reporters shortly after the final adjournment. “We’ve got a record amount of money going into KPERS now, a record amount of money going into social services, a record amount of money going to schools.”
He compared that spending to long overdue maintenance on a car.
“A lot of folks wanted to come in and change the oil in some places,” he said. “We like to say, if you don’t have $30 to change the oil, you’d better find $3,000 to change an engine.”
From the opening day of the session Jan. 9, the No. 1 issue confronting lawmakers was school finance.
Three months earlier, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down the funding formula enacted in 2017, and it gave the state a deadline of April 30 to report back and tell the court what lawmakers had done to fix the problem.
Republican leaders gambled, putting off any action until they would receive a consultant’s report March 15, one they hoped would tell them they could get by with only a small funding increase. But the wager backfired. The report they got back said it would take upwards of $2 billion a year in additional funding.
That sent the Legislature scrambling to come up with another plan, which didn’t pass until the final day of the regular session, just after midnight the morning of April 7. And in a game of brinksmanship with conservatives, it took extraordinary measures to pass a resolution to allow the session to go past midnight.
The final package calls for phasing in over five years an increase of more than $500 million in annual K-12 spending. In the upcoming school year alone, the Lawrence district will receive $3.4 million in new funding.
The question now is whether the Supreme Court will accept that plan, or strike it down as insufficient, forcing lawmakers to come back for a special session this summer.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said in an interview Friday that she feels confident about the plan lawmakers passed.
“My confidence level is high, because we gave them 291 (million) brand-new dollars last year for schools, and there’s $524 million over a five-year period of time,” she said. “And with the other needs of the state, especially the social service and mental health needs, I think that’s good. We had people argue that we should have given (schools) more, but I think our other units would say they should have gotten more.”
One of the last major acts of the Legislature occurred late Thursday with the passage of a bill that adds just over $1 billion in new spending to the two-year budget plan lawmakers approved last year.
That includes enhancements to the budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 when, for the first time, state general fund spending will top $7 billion.
That was made possible by a large tax increase lawmakers passed in 2017 by overriding then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto in order to reverse course on the controversial tax cuts he had championed five years earlier.
The tax plan was expected to produce a little over $600 million a year in new revenue, but its impact — combined with the effects of other changes in federal tax law — turned out to be much greater than that. By the end of April, total tax collections in Kansas were $967 million higher than the same period last year.
That gave lawmakers room to start restoring funding that had been cut in recent years for things other than K-12 education.
Rep. Eileen Horn, D-Lawrence, who was in her first session as a legislator, said it didn’t take long for her to get a sense of how tight things had been in state government.
“The testimony that I heard in committees from agencies was still very much, ‘We don’t have the capacity to do what we need to do. We don’t have the resources to do what we need to do. But, it’s better, and it’s not as bad as it was,'” she said in an interview. “And so I feel we’ve just started down this path of starting to fill those holes, and that felt more hopeful, like we could actually start to put money into state needs.”
The new package included $15 million to partially restore previous cuts to higher education, including close to $2.5 million for the University of Kansas.
It also includes increased funding for social services, including state psychiatric hospitals, as well as state employee pay raises.
Left on the table
The two most notable items that failed to move out of the Legislature this year were tax cuts and an expansion of concealed-carry gun rights.
The final hours of the session Friday were spent debating a tax bill that conservatives had wanted, especially those in the House who are up for re-election this year, and some in the Senate who are running for higher office.
Supporters said it was intended to return to taxpayers additional revenue the state expects to receive as a result of the recent federal tax overhaul. But critics argued it went much further than that, and that its passage threatened to undo the progress that has been made to put the state back on solid financial footing.
Although the bill passed the Senate Thursday by a razor-thin margin of 21-19, it failed the next day in the House, 59-59.
The debate over gun rights, meanwhile, went in a decidedly different direction than it has in the recent past in Kansas, where the trend has been to expand the right of almost anyone over 21 to carry concealed firearms in almost any public space, including public buildings and college and university campuses.
Lawmakers this year passed a bill to prohibit gun ownership by anyone recently convicted of domestic violence or who is the subject of a protection from abuse order.
Even more surprising, though, was the fact that lawmakers ended up taking no action on a bill that would have lowered the age for obtaining a concealed-carry permit to 18.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, told the Journal-World that the calendar in the final days was simply packed with too many other issues that he felt had to be dealt with first.
Others, however, said the tide had shifted, both nationally and in Kansas, following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and that even the most ardent supporters of gun rights did not want to campaign for re-election this year saying they had made it easier for teenagers to carry guns.
“That had to have an effect,” Sen. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, who chairs the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said in an interview. “It really doesn’t change the situation as far as why we needed it or anything else, but that’s just life, and that’s politics.”
“The conversation about gun safety has changed, and giving 18-year-olds the right to carry and conceal when that’s when they’re going on college campuses is incredibly politically unpopular,” House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said in a separate interview.
For Jo Ella Hoye, an activist with the Kansas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America who staked out the halls of the Statehouse throughout much of the session, the 2018 session marked a victory.
“I’m going to say, I feel a sense of relief knowing that we’re not going to roll back our gun laws this session,” she said in an interview Friday. “And we’ve seen the passage of very positive public safety legislation, the domestic violence bill to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, that has been championed by law enforcement and by survivors of gun violence.”