Topeka — Labor officials are not happy with the Kansas Legislature.
Citing a recent report that lists Kansas as one of the nation's 10 most deadly states in workplace safety, labor officials said Wednesday the 2013 Legislature will be remembered as one of the most anti-worker legislatures ever.
"Far too many people are dying on the job in this state and instead of strengthening protections for working people, our elected officials are further rigging the system against Kansas workers," said Bruce Tunnell, executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO. "Their misplaced priorities will mean that the health and well-being of more working people are at risk on the job."
An AFL-CIO report said that 78 workers were killed on the job in Kansas in 2011, a rate of 5.9 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared to the national average of 3.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. In addition, 41,000 workplace injuries and illnesses were reported, which was a rate higher than the national average. Kansas ranks 40th in workplace safety, according to the report.
But instead of addressing these safety issues, Tunnell said, the Legislature approved and Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law measures that make it more difficult for injured workers to collect workers' compensation.
Senate Bill 187 puts the appointment of workers' compensation judges more in the hands of businesses and insurance providers. Business groups said the former system favored nominees who were the least objectionable, and not necessarily the most qualified.
Senate Bill 73 reduces the time an injured worker can report a workplace injury, and puts in place new impairment guidelines for injured workers that organized labor has opposed. Supporters of the bill said the new impairment ratings were simply an update.
Topeka — A possible election challenge to Gov. Sam Brownback by former Senate President Steve Morris has been batted around the Twitterverse recently.
Contacted by phone, Morris, a Republican from Hugoton, said he has no plans to run for governor in 2014, but he added, "In this business, you never want to say never."
Morris said there was been discussion around the state of trying to challenge Brownback, a conservative Republican, with an independent or third-party candidate. He said there is probably no way a moderate Republican could defeat Brownback during the GOP primary because of the strength of conservatives within the party.
Morris said he believes Brownback's income tax cuts are hurting the state.
"The tax plan that the governor engineered last year was a big mistake, and this (Brownback's desire to eliminate the state income tax altogether) would just compound that mistake," he said.
Morris was one of 9 moderate Republican senators who were defeated in the GOP primary in August 2012. The moderates were targeted by Wichita-based Koch Industries and groups loyal to Brownback, such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Kansans for Life.
The tax changes approved last year with only Republican support and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback are being called the worst tax measures passed by a state in the last two years.
That's according to an article in Governing magazine link textthat quotes right- and left-leaning financial experts.
Exempting from taxes pass-through income for business owners provides "an incentive to game the tax system without doing anything productive for the economy," said Joseph Henchman with the Tax Foundation.
Nick Johnson with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the tax package "fails both vertical and horizontal equity tests." And he said the size of the cut was so "jaw-dropping" it will prevent the state from making investments in education and infrastructure.
Topeka — Is Gov. Sam Brownback moving closer to siding with expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act?
In a two-minute question and answer session with reporters, Brownback, a Republican who opposes the ACA, said his administration is looking at options and alternatives.
"We're still working on Medicaid, what we can do that we could make it work," he said.
Brownback then talked about wanting to make sure the state budget was in good shape and that when he took office in 2011, he was facing a shortfall "after the Sebelius administration."
Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, left Kansas to become President Barack Obama's secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sebelius was succeeded by Mark Parkinson, the former lieutenant governor, who had to deal with record revenue shortfalls during the Great Recession. Ironically, it's Sebelius, as HHS secretary, who is working with governors considering Medicaid expansion.
While many Republican governors, including Brownback, have been critical of Medicaid expansion, some are warming to the idea since the federal government will pay for the first three years, and 90 percent of it after that. Some have also said that it would be unwise for a state to leave federal money on the table for other states to take.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has been trying to persuade Republican legislative leaders to get on board. Earlier this week, Nixon said that if Missouri were to reject expansion of Medicaid it would become like a town from the 1860s that refused a railroad or a city from the 1960s that rejected an interstate highway. In Kansas, estimates indicate that Medicaid expansion would extend coverage to 200,000 more people.
Currently, Medicaid provides health care coverage to about 380,000 Kansans. The largest portion of them — about 230,000 — are children. The rest are mostly lower-income, pregnant women, people with disabilities and elderly people. The $2.8 billion program is funded with federal and state dollars.
Medicaid in Kansas doesn’t cover low-income adults who don’t have children. And a nondisabled adult with children is eligible only if his or her income is below 32 percent of the poverty level, which is less than $6,000 per year. That is about the most difficult eligibility level in the country.
But starting in 2014, the ACA creates an eligibility level of 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $15,415 per year for an individual and $31,000 per year for a family of four.
In the Legislature, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has been open to the idea of expanding Medicaid, while House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, hasn't.
A measure allowing alcohol consumption in the Statehouse was approved today by the Senate.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the proposal was aimed at allowing drinks to be served next year at an event to commemorate the completion of the lengthy Statehouse restoration project. Wagle said drinks would be sold and the profit would go to a charity.
But several senators said the bill was too broad, allowing state leaders to allow alcoholic drinks at any "official state function." "Alcohol offends some of our constituents," said Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg.
Others were upset the provision was slipped into a conference committee report without being considered as a stand-alone bill before the full House or Senate. Still, the proposal passed 29-10.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it is moving to Manhattan in summer 2014.
The plan is to house the agency in a new 50,000-square-foot facility built by the Kansas State University Foundation in the group's research park.
Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman said the decision was made to move so the agency could work closer with other agricultural and bioscience entities, including the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. "Manhattan is the value-added center for agriculture," Rodman said.
KDA will maintain its main administrative offices in Topeka, but will move the majority of its programs to Manhattan. In addition, the department will maintain current field offices in Stafford, Stockton, Parsons and Garden City.
Several Kansas officials on Tuesday called on Congress to approve immigration reform.
"We need a national solution and we need it soon," said Allie Devine, a former Kansas agriculture secretary.
In Washington, D.C., several Republican and Democratic senators are trying to craft a bill to secure the nation's borders, improve legal immigration and offer eventual citizenship to millions of people now in the country illegally.
Mike O'Neal, former Kansas House speaker and now chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said, "A well-crafted and targeted worker program, coupled with an effective border protection policy, offers the best hope of a ‘win-win’ strategy.”
Others speaking in favor of a bi-partisan immigration measure were the Rev. Mark Mertes of Blessed Sacrament Church; the Rev. Jason Schoff of Mission Adelante; both of Kansas City, Kan.; and Bob Stephan, former Kansas attorney general.
"Hispanics and other undocumented workers contribute to our society and they deserve a solution to solve the dilemma that faces them and our nation. We must design a road to lawful status and citizenship that respects those who have been in line and awaiting naturalization," Stephan said.
The roundtable discussion featuring Kansas officials was held at the Savior Pastoral Center Retreat and Conference Center in Kansas City, Kan. The event was sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum.
Topeka — House and Senate budget writers on Tuesday remained at an impasse over funding of higher education.
The House has approved a 4 percent reduction to higher education while the Senate has proposed a 2 percent cut.
In addition, the House has proposed other cuts from job vacancies, salary caps and other changes for a grand total of $63.35 million in reductions, compared with the Senate's cut of $21.25 million.
On Monday, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little met with House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and other House leaders to talk about higher education funding.
Higher ed officials pointed out that a recent national report noted that recent cuts in higher education have led to steep tuition increases.
States are spending $2,353 or 28 percent less per student on higher education in the current fiscal year than they did in 2008, when the recession hit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
During that period, tuition has increased $1,850, or 27 percent, the study said.
"Reversing these trends and reinvesting in higher education should be a high priority for state policymakers. A large and growing share of future jobs will require college-educated workers," the study said.
Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed keeping higher education funding at its current level.
Without comment, Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday signed into law a bill that bars public employee unions from taking voluntary deductions from members' paychecks to help finance political activities.
House Bill 2022 was sought by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and conservative legislators.
They argued that state and local government agencies processing payrolls shouldn't be involved in the transactions that divert money to political action committees. They also contended that people were being coerced into making this contributions.
Opponents, including the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the paycheck deductions are voluntary and the bill was a thinly disguised attempt to weaken the political influence of public employee unions.
Topeka — A gay rights advocate said Thursday a compromise has been reached on a bill that could result in the quarantine of people with AIDS or HIV.
House Bill 2183 would remove a current provision that exempts those with HIV or AIDS from possible quarantine.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials said they wanted to remove the exemption because HIV and AIDS are infectious.
During a hearing on the bill, Paul Marx, an associate chief counsel with KDHE, said there would be no medical reason to isolate or quarantine a person infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS. But Marx added, "I can't say that would never happen, if the virus were to mutate." He added, however, "That is hugely speculative."
Tom Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said he wanted the HIV/AIDS quarantine exemption restored.
During a House-Senate conference committee meeting, it was agreed to include the phrase "medically necessary and reasonable" when dealing with a quarantine issue.
"Since even KDHE publicly concedes there is never a `medically necessary' reason to quarantine someone with HIV, local health officials will not be able to get away with using the new law to justify harassment of people living with HIV/AIDS," Witt said.
Witt added of the compromise, "This is not perfect — no compromise ever is. We would rather see the specific HIV exemption preserved in law. However, given the extremely conservative tilt of our current state government, this is the closest we are going to get to ensuring people are treated fairly."
HB 2183 clarifies procedures on testing a patient for communicable diseases when a health care worker has been exposed to that patient's blood or bodily fluids.