Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature have lower approval ratings in Kansas than President Barack Obama, according to a recent poll from Fort Hays State University.
In fact, of all the public institutions and elected officials asked about in the poll, the one with the highest approval rating was one that Brownback and lawmakers spend a great deal of time attacking: the Kansas Supreme Court.
That may not be saying much, given that only 45 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the Supreme Court. But at least it was higher than the 25 percent approval rating for the Legislature, or Brownback's 21 percent rating.
By comparison, in the solidly Republican state of Kansas, 34 percent said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with President Obama.
That may be of interest to Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has been touting endorsements from Brownback and other GOP officeholders in the state leading up to Saturday's Republican caucuses.
Those were just some of the findings in the survey by FHSU's Docking Institute of Public Affairs leading up to Saturday's Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses in Kansas.
In addition, in the survey of voters' presidential favorites, which was released last week, the Docking Institute asked about a wide range of political and social issues. And, similar to the Kansas Speaks survey from last fall, it showed most Kansans are much more moderate in political ideology than their elected leaders.
The survey sampled 440 Kansas adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Among the issues specific to Kansas:
• 77 percent said funding for public schools in Kansas generally should increase, and 63 percent want increased funding for their own local schools.
• Two-thirds (66 percent) oppose the Legislature's decision to allow concealed carry of handguns without a permit or training requirements. Nearly half (49 percent) said they strongly oppose that decision.
• Only 23 percent said they are "extremely" or "very" concerned that a terrorist attack will occur in Kansas, while 49 percent said they are "somewhat" concerned, and 28 percent said they are not concerned at all.
However, when it comes to allowing Middle Eastern refugees fleeing war and persecution to come to Kansas, the poll showed Kansans' attitudes line up pretty well with their elected leaders: 51 percent oppose such a policy, while only 36 percent support it.
The survey also asked about several national political issues. And again, it showed most Kansans to be more moderate, or even liberal, than their elected Republican leaders.
• Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) said taxes should be raised on the nation's top income earners, and more than half (57 percent) said large corporations should pay more in taxes.
• Concern about the federal budget deficit was split about evenly, with one-third saying they are "extremely" or "very" concerned about it; another third saying they're "somewhat" concerned; and about a third saying they're not concerned at all.
• More than half (53 percent) said they would support allowing a pathway to citizenship for illegal or undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record. But a sizable number, 23 percent, support deporting all undocumented immigrants.
• And nearly half (48 percent) said they oppose defunding Planned Parenthood, while only 35 percent support it. The other 18 percent had no opinion either way.
The question is often asked how the political views of elected officials be so different from those of the people they represent.
The answer appears to be simple. "Average" Kansans don't vote in primary elections where candidates are selected. Only the most passionate and partisan voters do.
Newspapers and other media outlets in Kansas should brace themselves for the criticism we'll take six or eight months from now when people realize some new law has taken effect, and we probably didn't give it full coverage when it was being debated. So allow me to offer this preemptive rebuttal: It's because they all happened in the same two days, and there are only so many column inches in a newspaper.
Over the course of the next two days, Kansas lawmakers are scheduled to vote on 49 bills — 14 in the House; 35 in the Senate — as they engage in the legislative equivalent of a college student cramming for midterms.
In their rush to shorten the 2016 session, and thereby lengthen the 2016 campaign season, House and Senate leaders have moved up the "turnaround" deadline — the deadline when most bills have to pass out of their house of origin to remain alive — to Tuesday. After that, they'll take a week off, returning March 1 to continue the session, largely dealing with bills sent over by the other chamber.
Most of the attention will focus on the Senate, which will consider, among other things, a bill spelling out the grounds for impeaching a Supreme Court justice. As written, that would include "attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch," or "attempting to subvert fundamental laws and introduce arbitrary power."
That language was originally part of another bill introduced by Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, and others, but it never received a public hearing and, thus, no one was allowed to testify for or against it. But in the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was folded into a "separation of powers" bill dealing with administrative powers of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice.
In the House, the most controversial measure may be House Concurrent Resolution 5008, calling for a constitutional amendment establishing the public's right to hunt, fish and trap. Some critics have said such an amendment could impose a high legal burden on the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to justify any kind of hunting limits or wildlife protection measures.
Jayhawks could influence caucuses
Here's a question that strategists in the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns might want to think about: What time will the Kansas Jayhawks play the Iowa State Cyclones on March 5?
It's the last game of the regular season, and Seniors Day at Allen Fieldhouse. And, coincidentally, it's also the day of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Kansas.
As of this writing, the schedule on the Jayhawks' website has game time listed as "TBA," which probably means that ESPN, the NCAA and/or the Big 12 Conference are still trying to figure out when it will draw the biggest audience. But the time of the caucuses is already set in stone, which means any candidate banking on a big turnout from the 18- to 24-year-old crowd has reason to be concerned.
College Republicans can rest easy because their caucuses open at 10 a.m. and will close by 2 p.m., giving them plenty of time to vote, even if it ends up being an early afternoon game. But the Democrats have a somewhat more complicated caucus procedure, with registration running from 1 to 3 p.m., followed by the actual "caucusing," which involves more than just marking a ballot.
According to folks at the political blog FiveThirtyEight, a basketball conflict would be more concerning to Sanders who, based on results of the Iowa caucuses, has a decided advantage among younger voters, while Clinton fares better among voters over age 45. But we shouldn't discount the fact that Jayhawk basketball draws a sizable TV audience from viewers over age 45, so a conflict could cut both ways.
Though we've heard no official reports, we wouldn't be surprised to learn that either one or both of the campaigns have been on the phone to ESPN, lobbying to get the game into a favorable time slot.
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announced late Friday that she has removed Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The move came after Pilcher-Cook used an unusual parliamentary maneuver on the floor of the Senate to attach a Medicaid expansion amendment onto an unrelated bill.
Pilcher-Cook is an outspoken opponent of the Affordable Care Act. She said she offered the amendment to send a clear message to the House that the Senate had no interest in expanding Medicaid, known in Kansas as KanCare.
But her amendment was ruled out of order, and that prevented the Senate from taking any such vote. So, Pilcher-Cook then offered a motion to overrule that decision of the Rules Committee chairman and called for a vote.
Under rules in both chambers, members are not allowed to offer amendments that are not germane to the subject of the underlying bill. But Pilcher-Cook's motion to call for a vote put other senators in an awkward position, Wagle said, because voting to uphold overturn the ruling of the Rules Committee chairman could be misinterpreted as a vote for or against Obamacare itself.
The chairman of the Rules Committee, who ruled Pilcher-Cook's amendment out of order, is Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who is under intense pressure to at least allow a vote on Medicaid expansion because the community hospital in his hometown was forced to close in October, in part, hospital officials said, because the state's refusal to expand Medicaid was cutting off revenues to the hospital.
King is no big fan of Obamacare, but he has said he would consider an expansion plan if it meets certain conditions: that there be a work requirement for able-bodied adults who enroll in the plan, and that it be revenue-neutral for the state.
In response, the Kansas Hospital Association has drafted such a plan, and it is expected to have hearings in the Senate sometime this session. Such a bill would most likely be heard in the Health and Human Services Committee.
"Breaking the rules of the Senate and putting senators unnecessarily in a position of choosing between upholding the rules of the body or being seen as supporting Obamacare is unacceptable for any committee chair," Wagle said in a statement. "It showed complete disrespect for the body and its rules. I hope that Senator Pilcher-Cook’s removal makes that point very clear."
Wagle also gave an assurance that there will be a full debate and vote on Medicaid expansion this year, although she said she personally opposes it.
"But so that there can be no question of where the Kansas Senate stands on this issue, the body will take up the question of KanCare expansion under ObamaCare for a vote in the next few weeks," she said. "It will do so by following the rules of the Senate. Once that vote is taken, I think it will be clear that a majority of the Kansas Senate firmly oppose expansion of KanCare under Obamacare."
Wagle selected Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, to head the committee on an interim basis.
Leaders in the Kansas House and Senate are hoping for early passage of two major budget bills this week that could pave the way to an early end to the session. But a host of issues involving state agency borrowing, and particularly Kansas University's $350 million Central District project, threaten to complicate matters.
The two bills make adjustments to the current, fiscal year 2016 budget as well as the 2017 budget, both of which lawmakers initially adopted last year as part of their relatively new practice of working on two-year budget cycles.
One of the big questions, though, is how harshly some lawmakers will want to punish KU for what they perceive as the university circumventing the Legislature by forming a nonprofit corporation that then used a Wisconsin public finance agency to issue $327 million in bonds.
The House budget committee last week inserted language into its bill that would effectively put a clamp on spending from nearly all of KU's other revenue streams, such as tuition and fees, student housing payments and a host of other "special revenue" funds that universities are typically given a free hand to manage. And although the Senate hasn't included such language yet, its Ways and Means Committee has scheduled an informational hearing on the subject at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
But KU isn't the only state institution under scrutiny for finding creative ways to borrow money. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are still peeved at Gov. Sam Brownback and the Department of Administration for going through Bank of America to take out a $16.2 million "municipal loan" to build a new power station that sends heating and air conditioning throughout the Capitol area complex, a power station that some lawmakers still aren't convinced the state wants or needs.
It's intended to replace an existing one in the Docking State Office Building, just west of the Capitol, which the administration wants to demolish. But relocating the power station was originally budgeted at $9 million. When the bids came in well over that, members of the Joint Committee on State Building Construction started having second thoughts, and they thought they had made that clear to the administration back in December.
And then there's the issue of Kansas Department of Transportation bonding. In December, KDOT issued $400 million in bonds — on top of all the other bonds that have been issued for the T-Works program. Lawmakers had, in fact, authorized additional bonding because it was thought to be a smart move to take advantage of historically low interest rates.
But given the amount of money the administration has been sweeping out of the highway fund to make up for shortfalls in the general fund — $475 million this year and next — critics say it's hard to avoid the impression that Kansas is going into debt to pay for general government expenses. A House budget subcommittee initially voted to scale back Brownback's proposed fund sweeps, but later rescinded that move. Look for it to be a continuing point of contention during floor debate in the full House.
Here's a look at some of the other issues coming up in the Legislature this week:
• The House Judiciary Committee will hear a bill Monday to include "unlawful dissemination of consensually taken images" in the state's blackmail and breach of privacy statutes. • A bill to eliminate due process rights, also known as tenure, for community college and technical school instructors will be heard Tuesday in the House Education Committee. • Also Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee will hear a bill that would raise the speed limit to 80 mph on certain freeways. • On Wednesday, a Senate committee will hear a bill creating the crime of "unlawful transmission of a visual depiction of a child and unlawful possession of a visual depiction of a child."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.