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Watching paint dry at the Legislature


Tuesday marked the 85th day of the 2017 legislative session, and it was yet another day when virtually no progress was made toward solving the state's looming budget crisis or answering the Kansas Supreme Court's order to improve public school funding.

Although a House committee working on a school funding plan met for more than three hours Tuesday, it still has not finalized the bill that will eventually go to the full House. The panel plans to meet again Wednesday.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who serves on that committee, said Tuesday that she believes the group is making progress but admitted the process is taking longer than expected. She stressed, though, that the bill deals with complex and substantial issues about education policy that she says need to be thoroughly vetted before sending the bill out.

Meanwhile on the Senate side, a similar committee plans to meet Wednesday for the first time since the wrap-up session began May 1.

Neither chamber, however, is focusing on the two other big issues: passing a two-year spending plan for the rest of state government, and coming to agreement on a tax package to fund it.

During a caucus meeting of Senate Republicans Tuesday, Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, indicated there hasn't been a lot of movement on those issues in recent days, and there are don't seem to be any plans to work on those issues for the next few days.

The Senate budget committee has passed out its two-year budget plan, but Denning hasn't put that bill on the debate calendar yet.

On the tax front, a Senate committee sent out a bill Monday that would only repeal a portion of Gov. Sam Brownback's favored exemption for nonwage business income, which would generate far less than what the state needs to structurally balance its budget. And that same panel is working on a modified version of a "flat" tax bill similar to the one that only received three votes earlier in the session.

Neither of those two bills is thought to have much of a chance of passing either chamber.

Part of the stalemate stems from the fact that Democrats and moderate Republicans don't want to vote on a tax package until after they pass a school funding plan so they will know how much money is needed to balance the budget.

Estimates on that range from $1 billion to $2 billion over two years, depending on the size of the final school funding plan, plus whether lawmakers want to fully fund the state pension system and whether they want to avoid having to sweep more money out of the state highway fund.

Both chambers have developed a daily routine of coming into session at 10 a.m. to pass ceremonial resolutions, then coming in again around 2 p.m. to vote on minor bills coming out of conference committees. But that schedule seems to be more about making sure lawmakers stay in the building at least most of the day. Otherwise, the vast majority of rank-and-file members who don't serve on school finance, tax or budget committees really would have little incentive to show up each day.

In fact, members of the House and Senate committees that deal with financial institutions and insurance plan to spend the better part of Wednesday out of the building on a Kansas Bankers Association-sponsored field trip to the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo.

"To me, that's very untimely and unwise because we've got much bigger things to do with our time than to take a field trip to Kansas City," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said.

House Republican leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said the lack of progress has started to frustrate some members. But he said both chambers need to see the final version of the school finance plan before they can deal with taxes and the rest of the budget.


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