Several Lawrence-area lawmakers disappointed with slow-moving Legislature

photo by: Shutterstock Photo

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

As the second half of the Kansas Legislature’s 2019 session began last week, several Lawrence-area lawmakers told the Journal-World they thought the governing body should have made more progress by now on important legislation.

“There has not been a great deal accomplished, in my opinion,” said Republican state Rep. Jim Karleskint.

While most local Democratic lawmakers believe the Republican-controlled Legislature is hesitant to work with a Democratic governor, Rep. Barbara Ballard, a prominent Democrat who is the longest-serving lawmaker in Lawrence, said she is not worried about the pace on major issues so far and she believes they will be solved before the end of the session in April.

So far, the Legislature has only had one bill sent to and approved by Gov. Laura Kelly, which she signed into law on Friday. That bill authorizes an immediate, $115 million payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, repaying with interest a contribution that was skipped in 2016 because of budget problems.

Karleskint said voters sent the lawmakers to Topeka to solve the state’s K-12 education funding problem, expand Medicaid and establish a state budget. Although there has been work on those issues behind the scenes, Karleskint said the Legislature needs to begin working quickly on K-12 education funding because the lawmakers have a April 15 deadline to present a solution to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s 2018 funding plan inadequate. Last year, lawmakers increased school funding by $548 million over five years, but the court said they did not include a mechanism to account for inflation.

“That’s probably the biggest priority that we need to address,” Karleskint said. “There’s frustration on both sides (with) where things are at right now.”

“Do-nothing Legislature,” or a normal pace?

When answering a question from the Associated Press about the slow action on the major issues, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said “that’s what the second half is for.”

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she disagrees with that assessment. Instead, she said, the second half of the session is a time for the Senate and the House to begin working on bills that the other chamber has already approved. She said the House and the Senate should have already sent education funding bills to each other by the end of the first half of the session.

“I’m concerned,” she said, noting that in the past, the state has sometimes taken a while to act on legislation because budget concerns made the state’s financial standing unclear. “Right now we’re on a little more solid footing.”

Francisco said she thought Kelly gave the Legislature the opportunity to get a quick start on major issues when she provided a proposed budget for the state, which a first-year governor is allowed to skip because they have not been in the position.

“She got it out that first week, along with some bills she was proposing, particularly the expansion for Medicaid,” Francisco said. “The Legislature has not acted on very many of those issues.”

Rep. Eileen Horn, D-Lawrence, said media reports referring to the lawmakers as a “do-nothing Legislature” are representing the situation fairly.

The reason for the slow movement on important issues, Horn said, is likely because the Republican-dominated Legislature is dealing with a Democratic governor for the first time since 2010, and conservative legislators do not share her priorities.

“There has been a lot of procrastination in this building, for sure,” Horn said. “I think it has been an intentional attempt to slow down the process and keep (Kelly’s) priorities from being realized.”

photo by: Journal-World File Photos

From left, Rep. Barbara Ballard, Rep. Eileen Horn and Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger are pictured at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger, D-Lawrence, agreed with Horn’s assessment.

“This is the slowest session I’ve ever seen,” Highberger said. “I’m disappointed the House leadership is wasting so much of our time. We have a lot of important issues to tackle and we’re not addressing them.”

But Ballard said she is not surprised by how slowly legislation, specifically on education funding, has moved this year.

“I’ve been in the Legislature quite a while and we never do education until the end, so I’m not that upset about it,” said Ballard, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1993.

Although lawmakers are moving slowly, Ballard said the Legislature knows the state has to put more money into education. She said it also may be prudent to wait and see how much money the state collects in tax revenue this spring before approving additional funding.

“I feel pretty confident that we know what our responsibilities are and we will do it,” Ballard said.

As the freshman of the group, Rep. Mike Amyx, D-Lawrence, said he does not have years of experience to compare the current session to, but that the Legislature has moved more slowly than he expected.

“I thought we would have done a lot more in the first half of the session and see a number of bills come forward, but they just weren’t coming,” he said. “I expect it to be a lot busier in the second half.”

Local priorities

Although most of the second half of the session will likely focus on figuring out a K-12 education funding increase, local lawmakers still have several other priorities that they are working on.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said he has three bills he filed that he believes can make significant movement during the second half of the session. Two of those bills — one which would require church clergy to become mandatory reporters of sex crimes, and another which would legalize marijuana use for medical purposes — will receive hearings this week. Some of the local lawmakers said they are excited to see that Holland’s medical cannabis bill, which would also give veterans the first chance to receive marijuana prescriptions, has received a hearing.

“That’s exciting that we are moving the conversation forward on medical marijuana,” Horn said.

Karleskint, who filed an identical bill in the House, said he’s putting his effort behind Holland’s bill but he does not believe it will become law this year.

“It’s not that we feel like we will get a bill out this session, but we would like to get things started to look at it and be very deliberate in creating a structure that will pass both houses and be signed by the governor,” he said.

Amyx said he still wants to work on finding a way to provide more broadband internet access in rural areas. Another priority of his is expanding western portions of the South Lawrence Trafficway to four lanes, which he said is important for driver safety in his district.

Francisco said she would like to see legislation on internet sales tax, which the state can collect already but doesn’t do at the time of online purchases. Right now, internet sales tax is collected through annual Kansas resident tax filings, which Francisco said is not efficient.

Ballard said she wants to focus on social service budgets, which she said is the second-most important part of the budget behind K-12 education.

Many bills, however, will not get the chance to continue this session, Horn said, noting two proposals in particular that she was disappointed to see die: one that would have eliminated the death penalty, and another that would have established same-day voter registration.

“Unfortunately, they let a lot of good ideas die,” she said. “It has been a pretty frustrating session. I’m hopeful that we can stop playing games and move forward on K-12 education and Medicaid expansion, which is what Kansans sent us here to do.”

Highberger said most of the bills he was supporting did not make it into the second half of the session. The only bill of his that he believes is still alive is a bill that would change the state’s recognition of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.

But Highberger said it’s unlikely the bill will receive a committee hearing.

“That’s the joy of being a Democrat in the Kansas House,” he said.

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact University of Kansas, higher education, state government reporter Dylan Lysen:


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