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Lawmakers adjourn for weekend despite earlier vows to keep working
The Kansas House and Senate adjourned Friday despite earlier vows that they planned to work seven days a week through the end of the session.
That decision came after a week in which lawmakers made virtually no progress toward passing a budget, a school finance plan or a tax package needed to fund both of those.
Both chambers have been locked in a stalemate for weeks over the order in which those issues should be debated. Democrats and moderate Republicans, who can form governing majorities in both chambers, have insisted on putting the budget and school finance first so they will know how big of a tax package is needed. But the more conservative Republican leaders in both chambers insist on settling tax policy first in order to put limits around the cost of the budget and school finance.
A House committee advanced its version of a school finance bill earlier in the week, but House leaders have not put that on the calendar for debate.
On Friday, though, Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, the House Democratic leader, tried to invoke a procedure that would have forced that bill onto the floor for immediate debate. But his motion, which needed at least 70 votes to pass, garnered only 39.
"It is Day 95, the 19th day of this veto session, and the most important issue is schools," Ward said afterward. "So the question is, why not today?"
Republicans, however, said there were plenty of reasons not to vote on it Friday. They argued that the bill had just come out of committee, and many members wanted to go home for the weekend to discuss it with constituents before voting.
In addition, many members on both sides of the aisle are still having amendments drafted that they want to offer on the floor. But that process was unexpectedly interrupted Friday when the offices of the Legislative Research Department in the basement of the Statehouse were flooded after a drain pipe leaked during heavy thunderstorms Thursday night and early Friday morning.
Ward also tried Friday to force debate on another major issue that leaders have kept off the floor, concealed firearms on college campuses and at state psychiatric hospitals and other publicly owned health care facilities.
Starting July 1, under a law passed in 2013, those institutions will be required to allow concealed-carry in their buildings unless they provide metal detectors and armed security guards in those buildings that can adequately prevent anyone else from bringing weapons inside.
During debate Friday over a bill dealing with consumer protection, Ward offered an amendment that included language from a bill that failed to get out of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee that would permanently exempt those institutions from the law.
But Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs that committee, objected to the amendment, saying it was out of order because it wasn't reasonably related to the underlying bill. He also said there were other bills pending on the calendar that would be more appropriate for such an amendment, but that in the meantime negotiations were still taking place between gun rights advocates and those who oppose concealed-carry in public facilities to come up with compromise language that could pass both chambers and that Gov. Sam Brownback would sign.
Ward, however, said he did not believe GOP leaders had any intention of allowing a debate on gun policy this session, and he did not think behind-the-scenes negotiations were necessary.
"I don't think the NRA should dictate gun safety in our state, and that's what's going on behind closed doors right now," he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has strongly opposed any attempt to roll back the 2013 law.
After his motion was ruled out of order, Ward offered another motion to overturn the ruling of the chair. But that motion failed when the House voted on a 72-42 vote to sustain the ruling that his motion was out of order.
"The reason his motions fail is because people want to compromise," said Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican. "They don't want a nine-hour debate where everybody just starts bringing every wacky amendment ... but these things never happen quick. When the original gun debate happened, it wasn't quick."
Friday marked the 95th day of the session, and lawmakers budgeted this year to go no longer than 100 days, which would be Wednesday of next week. But few people in the Statehouse believe they can wrap up their work in that short time.
Friday also marked the last day of class for many school districts in the state, which means they now go into their summer vacations without having any idea how much money they'll have to work with next year or how many teachers and administrators they can afford to employ.
The Kansas Supreme Court has given the Legislature until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to pass a constitutional school funding system that meets the court's tests for both adequacy and equity. The court also has threatened to close the public school system starting July 1 if lawmakers fail to meet that deadline.
That would bring summer school programs to a halt, as well as summer meal programs that serve hundreds of thousands of free meals throughout the state to low-income children during the summer.