Posts tagged with Kansas Legislature

Budget, school consolidation, juvenile justice ahead for Kansas lawmakers

After three relatively quiet weeks to start off the session, Kansas lawmakers will start getting down to serious business on Monday with mid-year budget cuts, school funding changes and a massive overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system leading the agenda.

First up is Gov. Sam Brownback's plan for closing the potential shortfall in the current fiscal year's budget. Much of that plan was announced in November when new revenue estimates were released showing the seriousness of the problem, but many of the elements require legislative approval.

Overall, the plan calls for $30 million in direct spending cuts from the state general fund, plus sweeping money out of other funds into the general fund in order to prevent the state from ending the year on June 30 with a negative balance.

But the size of the budget hole could change as early as Monday afternoon when the Department of Revenue releases its report on tax collections for the month of January. Analysts will be paying close attention to the sales tax figures because January's report should reflect sales taxes that retailers collected and remitted to the state over the entire holiday shopping season.

After lawmakers raised the state sales tax rate to 6.5 percent last year, the question many are asking is whether that increase actually generated more revenue or simply drove consumers to shop in border states, or even online.

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee plans to work through bills that could radically change the way public schools are organized and financed. Although none of them constitute a new school funding "formula," which lawmakers will have to do either this year or next, the three bills up for discussion this week still would have profound effects on school funding for years to come.

The first, House Bill 2504, would force the consolidation of more than half of the state's school districts by establishing singular, countywide districts in counties with 10,000 or fewer students. And in larger counties, including Douglas County, it would require all remaining districts to have no fewer than 1,500 students.

That would force the Baldwin City school district to be combined into either the Lawrence or Eudora districts. And it would force all six districts in Jefferson County to be merged into one.

But the bill does not specify what would happen to all of the boards of education in the merged districts. Education groups like the Kansas Association of School Boards are already raising alarm bells about "one-person-one-vote" problems if a single, central administration is placed in charge of administering schools that answer to multiple boards in which board members are elected from districts of vastly different sizes.

Also on the Education Committee's schedule this week is a bill that would set up a special legislative committee that would decide which school bond issues will be eligible for state funding aid, and a bill to expand a program that offers tax credits for contribution to private and parochial school scholarship funds.

On the Senate side of the rotunda, the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee will spend most of the week conducting hearings on a massive overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said the overall aim of the bill is to reduce the number of youth offenders who are incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities by putting more emphasis on community corrections programs that would let offenders remain in their homes and in school. But he said there are a lot of moving parts to the 110-page bill that will take many days of testimony and debate in both chambers.

Other issues up for debate in legislative committees this week include:

Additional restrictions on welfare benefits, including a provision to monitor whether any welfare recipients have received more than $10,000 in lottery winnings. Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, 1:30 p.m. Monday.

• A bill that could subject teachers to criminal prosecution if they provide or display sexually explicit material deemed harmful to minors. The bill passed the Kansas Senate last year. It will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

• Final action in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday on a bill requiring school districts to provide access to their facilities by air gun organizations; and a constitutional amendment to guarantee the public's right to hunt, fish and trap.

• A bill to prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances or resolutions declaring themselves "sanctuary cities" to prevent detention or deportation of undocumented immigrants. House Judiciary Committee, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

• And a bill lowering the minimum age for obtaining a concealed carry permit to 18. House Federal and State Affairs Committee, 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

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Kobach to announce prosecutions

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is expected to announce Tuesday his first batch of prosecutions for voting crimes under new authority granted to him by the Legislature this year.

A spokesman in Kobach's office said three criminal cases have been filed. But he would not identify the defendants until the criminal complaints have been received and time-stamped by the clerks of the district courts where they are being filed, and that couldn't happen Monday because courthouses were closed for the Columbus Day holiday.

Kobach has long argued that various kinds of election fraud occur routinely in Kansas, but that they go unprosecuted by local authorities, either because of a lack of resources or lack of political will. He has said the crimes range from "double-voting" — that is, casting more than one ballot in an election by voting in multiple locations — to illegal voting by non-U.S. citizens.

To curb such crimes, Kobach pushed for passage of the Secure and Fair Elections, or "SAFE" Act in 2011. The act requires new voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship to register and photo ID at the polls to cast a ballot.

Critics of Kobach's policies argue that the alleged violations often involve unintentional mistakes, such as voters receiving ballots in the mail for elections in places in which they own property but no longer live. They say the reason they go unprosecuted is because local prosecutors have looked at the cases and decided they are not worth pursuing.

This year, lawmakers passed a law giving the secretary of state authority to prosecute voting crimes. The cases to be announced Tuesday will be the first cases filed under that new authority.

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School finance ruling pushed back 30-45 days

A long-awaited court decision about whether Kansas is adequately funding its public schools has been pushed back until around the first of the year.

Shawnee County District Judge Frank Theis, who presides over the three-judge panel hearing the case, sent an email to attorneys in the case late Friday saying the decision will likely come within the next 30-45 days.

The decision will weigh heavily in the upcoming legislative session, even though the opinion is certain to be appealed, because the latest revenue estimates show the state is already facing a $715 million budget shortfall over the next year and a half.

The trial court first ruled in January 2013 that the state was underfunding schools to the tune of about $450 million a year. It also said the funding system in place was inequitable, and it ordered the state to increase so-called "equalization funding" for less wealthy districts.

In March of this year, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the panel on the equity issue, but it overturned the verdict on adequacy and remanded that issue back to the three-judge panel with instructions to reconsider that issue using a different standard.

Many court watchers had expected a decision earlier, possibly even this week, after being told the judges had already begun drafting the opinion.

Given that the Supreme Court has already heard the case once, some observers think it may not take as long to consider a second appeal. Depending on when the three-judge panel issues its opinion, some believe it's conceivable, but by no means certain, that the Supreme Court could take briefs, hear oral arguments and render a final decision before the end of the 2015 legislative session.

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Children’s advocate says `politics’ killed bill that would have helped public health

A leading state children's advocate says that a bill that would have saved children's lives and cost nothing died because of "politics."

"Politics got in the way, and Kansas kids will die needlessly as a result," said Shannon Cotsoradis, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children. Key state officials denied Cotsoradis' allegation.

One of those, Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said the bill got caught up in legislative deadlines.

The dispute is over Senate Bill 259, which would have allowed health researchers to extract information from the State Child Death Review Board for the purpose of public health research. The bill would have prohibited disclosure of information that could be used to identify a child.

Supporters of the bill say it will help the state identify trends and risk factors that may contribute to the death of a child.

Cotsoradis said identifying those public health trends is crucial because the Kansas child death rate exceeds the national rate.

A bill similar to SB 259 passed the House without opposition.

SB 259 was approved in March by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it failed to advance and died at the end of the session.

When pressed what she meant by "politics" getting in the way, Cotsoradis said that Kansas Action for Children has a long-running legal dispute with Attorney General Derek Schmidt in which the child advocacy group seeks the release of information about tobacco settlement revenues that fund children's programs.

"We don't have the best relationship with the attorney general's office. That may have factored into the equation," Cotsoradis said. Schmidt's office denied that Schmidt had anything to do with the bill's demise. Schmidt's spokesman, Clint Blaes, noted that the Child Death Review Board, which is part of the attorney general's office, testified in support of the bill.

King, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "There is nothing nefarious going on." King added that he supported the bill and will try to pass it next year. As far as the charge that children will die as a result of the measure not being passed, King said, "I have not seen one iota of evidence" to support that.

Cotsoradis said a bill that passed the House without opposition, and drew no opponents who testified, should have passed the Legislature.


Private health clubs get property tax exemption under Senate amendment

Some Senate Republicans did some heavy lifting on Friday for private gyms by voting to give them a property tax exemption.

State Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, said it was unfair that for-profit private health clubs paid property taxes, while non-profit YMCAs and YWCAs were exempt from those taxes.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, however, said the YMCAs and YWCAs do public service work, while private health clubs don't.

Hensley handed out information that showed many supporters of Melcher's amendment received campaign donations from the owner of Genesis Health Clubs.

"The people who write the checks, end up writing the laws," Hensley said.

Melcher responded, saying, "It's a shame a taxpayer has to expend so many resources to get tax fairness." His amendment giving private health clubs a property tax exemption was approved 21-17. The underlying bill dealt with a long-running dispute over taxes paid by a concrete company.

State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, tried to exempt Douglas County from the amendment, saying that there were no YMCAs or YWCAs in the county. "I'm not going to let foolish special-interest tax policy unfairly shift the tax burden onto other commercial and residential property owners in my district," he said. But his amendment was rejected.

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Sea monster invades Statehouse

School children visiting the Statehouse on Thursday quickly gravitated toward the building's newest addition — a 17-foot juvenile mosasaur hanging on the wall in Gov. Sam Brownback's ceremonial office.

"It's kind of like lightning in a bottle, the way I see it," said Alan Detrich, of Lawrence, a fossil hunter who discovered the dinosaur several years ago in Gove County in western Kansas.

"Once you get a kid interested in dinosaurs or fossils, they want to read about it, and on the way to becoming a paleontologist they might accidentally end up being a doctor, or a governor, or a state representative," Detrich said.

Detrich has loaned the mosasaur to the state for an indefinite period of time.

The mosasaur arrived as the Kansas House gave final approval to make the tylosaurus, a type of mosasaur, as the state marine fossil, and pteranodon as the official state flying fossil.

The designation started with petitions from school children in Lecompton Elementary; Liberty Memorial Central Middle School and New York school, both of Lawrence; and Santa Fe Trails Middle School in Olathe.

Amanda Martin-Hamon, the daughter of the late Larry Martin, who had been Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Kansas University Natural History Museum, said her father would have been proud of the designation because it will be used as an educational tool. "He felt like paleontology was a really great way to do that because kids love fossils, they love dinosaurs. It sparks their imagination to think that sea monsters were real," she said.

Martin-Hamon's daughter Teagan, a third-grader at Lecompton school, helped spur the petition effort of having a state fossil.

The mosasaur, coiled up in its "death pose" on display, was a swimming reptile predator common to Kansas when it was under an inland sea millions of years ago.

Mosasaur fossil was brought to the Statehouse on Thursday. It is on loan from fossil hunter Alan Detrich.

Mosasaur fossil was brought to the Statehouse on Thursday. It is on loan from fossil hunter Alan Detrich. by Scott Rothschild

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Repeal of mortgage registration fee approved by committee

A bill that would phase-out the mortgage registration fee over five years has been approved by a Senate committee.

Bankers and real estate agents have been pushing for the end of the fee, saying it hurts their business and consumers.

But county officials statewide, including those in Douglas County, have said the lost revenue would need to be made up some other way.

Senate Bill 298 was recommended by the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee earlier this week.

The fee is equal to $2.60 for each $1,000 borrowed on a home mortgage, or $390 for a $150,000 mortgage. It isn't collected from people who pay cash for real estate.

In Douglas County, the fee generated about $1.8 million last year, and officials estimate a 2-mill rise in property taxes would be needed to replace that money.

The bill approved by the committee would also phase-in over four years a $4-per-page increase in fees for documents handled by county registers of deeds. But county officials say they won't produce nearly enough to replace the mortgage registration fee.


Dinosaur debate advances, but some oppose

The Kansas House advanced a bill to designate the Tylosaurus and Pteranodon as the official state fossils, but not before a lecture from a state legislator that the action was a waste of time.

"This foolishness has to stop sometime," said state Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe.

He said the proposal would have no benefit and the Legislature should spend its time on school finance and funding services for those with disabilities.

But other legislators said designating a state marine fossil and state flying fossil would expose Kansas schoolchildren to the natural scientific history of Kansas.

And it would spur tourism, they said, especially at the Kansas University Natural History Museum and Sternberg Museum in Hays.

In fact, famous fossil hunter Alan Detrich will bring a juvenile Tylosaurus skeleton to the Statehouse on Thursday for display.

House Bill 2595 gained preliminary approval 93-13.

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Abortion opponent will have ultrasound done on pregnant woman during committee meeting

Topeka — An ultrasound will be performed on a pregnant woman before a Senate committee today, the chairwoman of the committee said.

The procedure will be performed in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee as hundreds of anti-abortion advocates gather at the Statehouse to coincide with the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Public Health and Welfare Chairwoman State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, is an ardent opponent of abortion.

She said the ultrasound needed to be done for the committee for education purposes. "Because we often consider the life and health of the unborn child in the Senate health committee, it is important that committee members are educated as to the science of the life within the womb," Pilcher-Cook said.

Those opposed to abortion often push for laws that require women who want an abortion to have an ultrasound and have abortion providers place the ultrasound image next to a pregnant woman so she can view it and listen to the heartbeat.

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Proposed ALEC allegiance oath ‘non-issue,’ House Speaker Merrick’s office says

The Guardian newspaper recently reported on numerous internal documents of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps shape legislation in Kansas and other states.

One document showed that the corporate-backed ALEC, which has numerous Republican legislative members in Kansas, had proposed that the ALEC state chairs take a loyalty oath that said, "I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first."

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, is the ALEC state chair in Kansas. Asked whether Merrick would sign such an oath, his spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said, "This is a non-issue. The oath was not adopted."

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