Marijuana bill to conference committee; school accounting bill dies; bill raising auto insurance minimums advances
The Kansas House apparently has a lot of questions about what the Senate did to the House's marijuana bill and voted Friday to request a conference committee.
The original bill, which passed the House last year, would lower the penalties for first- and second-time charges of marijuana possession. That was intended to free up bed space in the state's already-overcrowded prisons, thus saving the state upwards of $1 million a year.
But it also included provisions legalizing the medical use of hemp oil to treat certain seizure disorders and authorizing the Kansas Department of Agriculture to research industrial uses of hemp.
Over in the Senate, though, the medical and agricultural hemp provisions got stricken out and replaced with a provision, pushed by Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, calling for mandatory prison sentences for certain aggravated burglary charges. Among other things, that would effectively cancel out all of the bed space and financial savings from lowering marijuana possession charges.
Friday, the bill came back to the House on a motion to concur or nonconcur with what the Senate had done. But both the chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Boog Highberger of Lawrence, said those were some pretty major changes to their bill, and they want to talk about it some more.
It probably won't be the only sentencing bill on which the House and Senate have different positions. What often happens in the Legislature is to wait until the final weeks of the session when the conference committee has a stack of bills to deal with, and then begin horse-trading with different elements from many different bills, which will then get bundled together into a single "omnibus" Corrections and Juvenile Justice bill.
That practice, by the way, has been a particular bone of contention for Rubin, who has tried, mostly without success, in the past to put strict limits into the House rules about how many different bills can be bundled together in conference reports.
Uniform accounting and reporting dies
Conservatives in the House who have been pushing for a law to make school districts produce more understandable financial reports suffered a setback in the House when their bill to require uniform accounting and reporting systems failed on final action, 58-61.
That had been one of the recommendations of Gov. Sam Brownback's task force on school efficiency, which issued its report in 2013, and the bill calling for such a system passed the Senate in 2015. Groups including the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Authority (whose president Dave Trabert served on the efficiency task force) argued that having a uniform accounting and reporting system would make it easier to compare finances and spending habits across districts to determine who's being more efficient with their money and who's being more wasteful.
They also argued that having a single, uniform accounting and reporting system might save districts, and the state, some money on software costs.
The bill, however, went further and would have required districts to publish on their websites the aggregate annual compensation for their employees as well as the names and salary information of their 10 highest-paid employees, or top three employees in the case of very small districts.
But a lot of school officials pushed back, arguing first that the Kansas State Department of Education already has a standard form for reporting top-line, summary data. But they all have individual systems for keeping track of more detailed information because the 286 districts all do things differently.
Auto insurance coverage
Drivers who carry only the minimum required liability insurance in Kansas would have to carry a little bit more under a bill that passed out of the House Friday, 116-2.
Since the 1980s, Kansas has required drivers to carry only $10,000 worth of coverage for property damage. But with the average cost of new cars today now well over $30,000 — and even the cheapest new car on the road pricing at more than $12,000 — there is now general agreement that the Kansas coverage minimum just wasn't enough.
The bill does not, however, raise the minimum coverage limit for bodily injuries, which is the cost of medical care if you cause an accident that injures someone else, despite the massive increases in health care costs that have occurred since the 1980s. That limit now stands at $25,000 per person, or $50,000 total.
Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who chairs the Insurance Committee, said Kansas is still above average among states for injury coverage and raising the limit would have had a bigger impact on the price of an insurance policy, which would likely result in having more uninsured drivers on the road.
He also said that although there are many horror stories about people who've been severely injured in accidents, overall, the vast majority of injury accidents result in relatively minor injuries.
That bill now goes to the Senate.
The Kansas Democratic Party will gather in Wichita this weekend for its annual mid-year DemoFest convention.
Usually in odd-numbered years, these conventions can be something of a yawner. But this year could be different, with the 2016 elections coming up, and internal angst growing within the party over its three consecutive "clean-sweep" losses to Republicans.
So here are four things that political junkies of all stripes will be watching for this weekend:
• Paul Davis: Made a surprisingly strong run for governor in 2014 against incumbent Republican Sam Brownback, and led in most polls up until the final weeks of the campaign. The party has sent out emails inviting Democrats to "join him" at DemoFest, although he's not officially listed on any of the programs. Still, he's expected to show up, and a lot of people will be watching for signals or announcements about any future political ambitions he may have.
• The 'dark money' question: Officially, most Democrats are still against it. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said it's legal, and Democrats know a lot of their candidates have been crushed in recent elections under the weight of dark money flowing into campaigns from conservative groups with ties to Koch Industries.
Will Democrats stop complaining about dark money and finally decide to go get some? Well, it's worth noting that the keynote speaker at Saturday's banquet will be former Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer, who now heads Advantage 2020, a super-PAC dedicated to helping Democrats win state legislative races.
Question two on that subject: Can Kansas Democrats convince Schauer to spend any of that PAC money here?
• New candidates: We're still more than a year out from the 2016 elections, but Democrats have already started rolling out some candidates who plan to challenge sitting Republicans next year. Will any more make announcements at DemoFest, including potential congressional candidates?
• New message: For years, Kansas Democrats have branded themselves as the "pro-education" party. But lately, that hasn't been enough to win on a statewide basis. And the 2014 elections pretty much proved that their other main message, "Brownback = Bad," isn't enough either.
Some Democrats have urged party leaders to focus elsewhere — they already have the "pro-education" vote — and start talking more forcefully about bread-and-butter issues: tax fairness; rural development; highways; the minimum wage; and health care.
Larry Meeker, the new party chairman, has tried running a new theme up the flagpole, "Red State Democrats," emphasizing the idea that they recognize Kansas is a conservative state, and therefore trying to play down the "liberal" label they're often tagged with.
We're hoping get a better sense of how well that plays with the party faithful this weekend.
The Kansas Senate is expected to take up a tax bill Friday which, if it passes, could bring the 2015 legislative session to a close on its record-setting 113th day. But the bill falls far short of actually balancing the state budget, analysts say.
The House, after working through the night and into the early hours of the morning, finally passed the Senate's tax plan, along with a "trailer" bill that changes some parts of the Senate bill.
That complicated procedure was necessary because Senate Republican leaders have refused to put a second tax bill on the floor.
Combined, the two bills would raise the state sales tax to 6.5 percent and they would slow down scheduled cuts in individual income tax rates. They also include a 50-cent per pack increase in cigarette taxes and a variety of other measures expected to generate $384.4 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Even with that, House Taxation Committee chairman Marvin Kleeb of Overland Park said, Gov. Sam Brownback would have to cut $30-$50 million out of the budget that passed earlier this month.
But some lawmakers say the cuts will have to be worse than that because they seriously doubt estimates of how much money certain provisions will actually bring in. Among them are:
• A tax amnesty program that would waive interest and penalties for taxpayers who pay up their past-due tax accounts. That's supposed to bring in $30 million next year. But critics say unless the Department of Revenue hires more staff and devotes resources to collecting on those accounts, the amnesty program is likely to fall short.
• A tax on "guaranteed payments" to business partners — a contractual arrangement where partners are guaranteed certain payments regardless of the profit or loss of the business — is expected to bring in $23.7 million. But critics say it would be easy for those businesses to reorganize their structure or change the contracts in order to shield those payments from state taxes.
• And the increase in sales tax, which the bill would make effective July 1, is projected to bring in $164 million. By law, however, retailers are entitled to 30 days notice before sales tax rates can change. And because the session has dragged into the middle of June, Senate tax committee chairman Les Donovan of Wichita said, retailers aren't legally obligated to charge the tax starting July 1, although he believes many will.
Meanwhile, internet and mail order retailers may not be obligated to charge the tax until Oct. 1 because, under a multi-state "streamlined sales tax" agreement, not only do states have to give 30 days notice, they also are only supposed to change tax rates on the first day of a calendar quarter.
The Senate is expected to start debating the second bill at 2 p.m. Friday. If it passes, both the underlying tax bill and the "trailer" bill will go to the governor and lawmakers will adjourn.
But if it fails to pass the Senate — and Donovan says some Senate Republicans will have serious concerns about it — the tax and budget debate will go back to square one.
Republican leaders in the Kansas House offered their "trailer bill" proposal Wednesday afternoon that could pave the way for lawmakers to end the 2015 session. But the process of getting both bills through the House, and then getting the trailer bill through the Senate, could be difficult.
House Taxation Committee chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, outlined the proposal in a conference committee meeting Wednesday afternoon.
The trailer bill would clean up, or completely undo, many of the add-on policies that the Senate put into its tax bill. Specifically, it would:
• Continue the food sales tax credit program in which low-income, elderly and disabled individuals can get an income tax credit equal to a portion of the sales tax they paid on food during the year. The Senate bill called for eliminating that program.
• Establish a commission to review various tax exemptions and credits and make recommendations to the Legislature next year about which ones to keep and which to repeal, a clarify which exemptions are eligible for repeal and which are not. In particular, the commission would not review imposing sales taxes on motor fuels, or items purchased by non-profit hospitals, blood banks or schools.
• Clarify language about a property tax lid on cities and counties, providing a number of exceptions under which those local governments could increase property tax revenue beyond the rate of inflation without having to seek a public vote. One area still hazy in the plan would be instances when property tax revenues grow due to new construction and population growth. Kleeb would only say the bill gives "flexibility" in that area, but did not define that further.
• And modify language in the Senate's bill regarding private school scholarships that pay for low-income students in public schools to transfer to private or parochial schools.
Getting that bill through both chambers could be a difficult task, however. Kleeb outlined the following steps that would need to take place.
First, the House must vote on and pass the Senate's tax plan. If it passes, the House will hang on to that bill - i.e., not send it to the governor - until all the other steps are completed.
Second, the House would vote on the trailer bill. If it fails, the House would vote to reconsider its action on the underlying "mega-bill" and go back to the drawing table to come up with a new plan. But if it passes, the House would send the trailer bill over to the Senate.
If the Senate fails to pass the trailer bill, then again, the House would reconsider its passage of the underlying bill. But if the Senate passes the trailer bill, both would go to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who has indicated he would sign them.
Another complicating factor is that many of the items in the trailer bill would repeal or scale back positions that were popular with conservatives in both chambers. So leaders may need to rely on Democrats and moderate Republicans to support the trailer bill.
Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, the ranking minority member on the House tax panel, said it is possible that some Democrats could vote for the trailer bill because it improves the underlying bill. But he would give no guaranty until House members see the exact language of the bill.
Sawyer said it is a certainty that no Democrats will vote for the underlying Senate bill.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is urging the Kansas House to pass the Senate's tax bill, along with any "trailer" bill that's needed to clean up provisions that many House members find objectionable.
"At this point in time, they just need to get something done, get it across the line, work the bill, and then whatever they have to do, need to do, to clean things up," Brownback told reporters during an impromptu news conference outside the House chamber. "It just needs to happen. Now’s the time."
Republican leaders are said to be working with individual groups of legislators to find out what needs to be in a trailer bill to make the whole package acceptable.
Many House members want to remove portions of the Senate bill that call for imposing a property tax lid on cities and counties, and sunsetting a whole host of sales tax exemptions, property tax exemptions and income tax credits.
But a large number of House members, including Democrats and moderate Republicans, are said to be holding out for putting some kind of income tax — either 1 percent, or possibly 2.7 percent — back onto the business profits of certain types of farm and other business organizations.
Brownback would not say what he would do if a trailer bill included reimposing taxes on business income.
"What they need to do now, in my estimation, they need to just take up the Senate bill and then deal with what they need to in the trailer bill," he said. "That’s the route forward. It’s there, it’s doable. And I would urge all of them, everybody — both parties, all factions — to do that and move forward."
The fate of the $423 million tax bill that the Kansas Senate passed Sunday night was very much in doubt in the House Monday afternoon.
The House postponed debate on the bill until around 6 p.m., giving both party caucuses about four hours to look over the complex package of tax measures and other policy issues.
The package passed by the Senate Sunday night relies mainly on increased sales and cigarette taxes, along with cuts in itemized income tax deductions, to raise the money needed to balance the state's budget. But it also contains a number of other policy measures aimed at attracting conservative legislators to vote for the bill.
Members of both parties in the House complained that the bill itself, which is reportedly more than 600 pages long, still has not been made available, either in print or online. The summary of the bill, known as a "conference committee report," runs 119 pages.
House tax committee chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, said many Republicans mainly object to the additional policy measures added onto the bill, such as imposing a property tax lid on cities and counties, and putting a sunset on a wide range of tax exemptions and credits. But he said there are also Republicans who object to the fact that it does not include an income tax on non-wage business income, something Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has threatened to veto.
Conservative groups such as the Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity have been lobbying behind the scenes, trying to convince conservatives to vote no on what would be the largest tax increase in state history.
Meanwhile, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, told reporters Monday that senators are growing impatient because the House has not yet passed any comprehensive tax bill. She said if the Senate's bill fails in the House, then the House needs to show what kind of tax plan it will pass.
And if the House doesn't do that, Wagle left open the possibility that the Senate could adjourn and go home.
Asked if there was a "Plan B" on the table, Wagle said: "Yes. Allotments."
That's a process whereby the governor could simply order cuts in the budget to make it balance with projected revenues. The current gap between approved spending and projected revenues is currently estimated at about $360 million.
The budget gap had been at about $406 million, but lawmakers over the weekend approved a $47.8 million tax on certain kinds of health insurance policies, which will be used to draw down increased federal Medicaid reimbursements.
Property tax lid re-emerges in third tax proposal
Kansas lawmakers plan to vote sometime after midnight Friday on a budget-balancing bill that would include a kind of property tax lid for city and county governments.
That idea, which emerged as a surprise in the Senate earlier in the week, would require cities and counties to hold a public vote before they could increase property tax collections above the rate of inflation from one year to the next. That would apply even if the increased revenue is attributable to growth and new construction.
The House, however, has been leery of the idea. So under the latest plan, it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2018.
The latest negotiated deal also includes higher sales taxes, but no new taxes on non-wage business income. It also would freeze current income tax rates in place for all other tax filers until 2020 while repealing many itemized deductions.
House and Senate negotiators agreed around 8 p.m. to run that plan, starting this time with the Senate.
The previous two tax plans started in the House, and both were defeated by overwhelming margins.
Lawmakers have until Saturday night to come up with a plan to balance the budget. If not, thousands of state employees will be furloughed starting Sunday.
House defeats second tax bill
The Kansas House just voted down the second budget-balancing bill in as many days. The vote shortly before 5 p.m. brought the state to within 31 hours of having to furlough thousands of state employees.
The bill was defeated on a vote of 27-82. Lawrence Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard, Boog Highberger and John Wilson all voted no. Republican Tom Sloan of Lawrence was absent.
A few Democrats had initially indicated they might vote for it because it contained provisions they had advocated throughout the session: reimposing some income tax on non-wage pass through income of business owners; and a lower sales tax on food purchases. But it also called for raising the state sales tax by three-tenths of a cent, to 6.45 percent.
In the end, Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, the ranking Democrat on the House tax committee, said the bill was a step in the right direction, but "it doesn't go far enough."
Republicans were sharply divided on the bill because it appeared to reverse course on the tax policy they adopted in 2012 that eliminated taxes for more than 330,000 business owners and called for phasing out all income taxes over several years.
House and Senate tax negotiators are scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. to come up with another plan.
Some lawmakers are hoping to work through the night, if necessary, to come up with a plan to avoid furloughs. The House implemented a new rule this year that says it cannot meet after midnight, but the House voted to suspend that rule for tonight.
Second tax plan aimed at drawing Democrats and moderate Republicans
House and Senate tax negotiators offered up another tax plan aimed at balancing the state's budget and avoiding furloughs, and it's one clearly aimed at attracting votes from Democrats and moderate Republicans.
The conference committee met around 11 a.m., shortly before thousands of state employees received notices that they will be furloughed without pay starting Sunday unless lawmakers can pass a balanced budget before then.
The bill would impose income taxes, albeit at the lowest rate of 2.7 percent, on non-wage, pass-through business income for more than 330,000 business owners in Kansas. And it would repeal the formula known as the "march to zero" that is intended to phase out all income taxes over the next several years.
It would also raise the state sales tax rate to 6.45 percent, an increase of three tenths of a cent, effective July 1. But it would lower the sales tax rate on food to 5.7 percent starting Jan. 1. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, put that amendment onto the original Senate bill, and it drew strong bipartisan support on two recorded votes.
The bill has a number of other lesser provisions such as removing the sunset on the "Rural Opportunity Zone," or ROZ, program that allows either a five-year income tax waiver or $15,000 of student loan repayment for people who move into any of the 77 rural counties that have suffered severe population loss in recent years.
It also has a 50-cent-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes, which many public health advocates support. But it would not, as the Senate had hoped, impose any new tax on e-cigarettes, based on the belief, not yet backed by data, that e-cigarettes are less hazardous to a person's health than regular cigarettes.
Both Democrats on the conference committee, Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City and Rep. Tom Sawyer of Wichita, are still not agreeing to sign the report, which means the House and Senate have to go through another procedural hoop before they can vote on it. But Sawyer called this latest bill, "a step in the right direction."
"We'll take it back to our caucus and discuss it," Sawyer said. "It's not what we want maybe at this point in time, but at least it's heading the right way."
The House will vote first on the bill, probably sometime after 2 p.m.
Websites poke fun at legislative stalemate
As the Kansas Legislature goes into Day 106 of its regular 90-day session, and the threat of furloughs for tens of thousands of state employees looms less than 48 hours away, web denizens in Kansas haven't lost their sense of humor.
One website popped up this week that probably offers the most accurate, concise and understandable summary of the current status of the stalemate. The name of the site says it all: www.DoesKansasHaveABudgetYet.com. Check it out for yourself.
Another site, with a bit more partisan edge to it, asks readers to nominate candidates for its mock "Stupid Tuesday Primary" in August.
An email to news media outlets promoting the site, ItsTimeToFixStupidKS.com, came from R. J. Dickens, who formerly served on the Kansas Democratic State Committee and was the party's nominee for Secretary of State in 1990.
Dickens, who lives in the Wichita area, told the Journal-World the website was started by a group of Facebook friends, most of whom have been involved in Democratic politics in the past. He said the point of the website is to raise money that will fund negative advertising against "incumbent idiots" in the 2016 campaign. The online "Stupid Tuesday Primary," which runs in August, will identify the targets of that advertising.
So far, all of the candidates nominated have been Republicans, but Dickens said his group isn't necessarily limiting itself. He also said all of the negative advertising will have a humorous tone.
"We can't keep crying about what's happening in Topeka. Let's laugh along with the rest of the world (yes, the whole world is laughing at us)," the website proclaims.
Coverage from Thursday, Day 105
House and Senate tax negotiators reached agreement Thursday on the first — and what many hope will be the last — revenue package to close the state's $400 million budget gap.
The bill will go first to the House, where leaders hope to schedule a vote sometime Thursday evening.
It would raise the state sales tax rate half a cent, to 6.65 percent, while lowering the tax rate on food to 5.9 percent. That's expected to generate $214 million next year.
The bill would not reimpose income taxes on non-wage, pass through income of business owners, something Republican Gov. Sam Brownback had threatened to veto. But it would tax what are called "guaranteed payments" that some business partnerships pay to executives.
Other items include freezing income tax rates for everyone else through 2018, and repealing the formula known as the "march to zero" that was intended to phase out income taxes altogether over the next several years.
The income tax portions of the bill are estimated to generate $145.7 million.
Combined with several other items, the package is estimated to generate $432.1 million next year. It also assumes lawmakers will pass another bill imposing a privilege fee on certain kinds of insurance policies, the revenues for which would be used to draw down more federal Medicaid funding.
Lawmakers are now in the 105th day of the session. They must pass a budget and tax plan before midnight Saturday to avoid furloughing thousands of state workers on Sunday.
Consumers in Kansas would pay less sales tax on food purchases starting next year, under a tax amendment that Democratic Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence added to a bill Tuesday night.
But whether or not that amendment survives during negotiations with the House remains an open question.
Francisco offered her amendment at the end of another lengthy debate over tax policy in the Senate. For the previous three days, Republican leaders in the Senate had tried to cobble together a $400 million-plus tax package to close the projected budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year before the state has to start sending out furlough notices next week to potentially thousands of state employees.
Several times, Republicans offered up amendments that included entire packages of tax proposals, some of which would be more popular than others. Each time, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley would divide the motion, forcing roll call votes on each individual piece.
As a result, only the popular items passed, including the reduction in food sales tax, and an income tax exemption for about 388,000 low-income tax filers being among them. The other, less popular portions - raising the overall sales tax rate and raising cigarette taxes - all failed.
By Tuesday morning, the Senate had a bill that not only failed to close the budget gap, it actually made the gap wider. So GOP leaders agreed Tuesday to return to their original plan, one they had been forced to abandon last Friday, to strip out the Democrats' amendments and send a shell of a bill to conference committee where a handful of lawmakers could negotiate a package for straight up or down votes in each chamber.
But Democrats objected to that, arguing that Republicans were trying to abandon positions that a majority of senators had gone on record endorsing.
Thus, after stripping out the Democratic amendments of the last two days, Francisco offered a motion to put the reduction in food sales tax back on. Her motion passed on a roll call vote, 24-11.
The measure reduces the food sales tax rate to 5.7 percent, from 6.15 percent.
The Senate is expected to vote on final passage of the bill Wednesday. It will then be sent to the House, which is expected to request a conference committee.
Wednesday will mark the 104th day of the legislative session. Lawmakers have until Sunday, June 7, to pass a balanced budget before furlough notices are sent to non-essential state employees.
Recently released U.S. Census data shows Kansas' population grew by 32,789, or 1.1 percent, from April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2012.
During the same period, Colorado grew by 3.1 percent; Missouri, 0.6 percent; Nebraska, 1.6 percent; and Oklahoma, 1.7 percent.
Kansas ranks 33rd among states in U.S. population with 2,885,905 people. There's a lot of info on this at this link: http://1.usa.gov/Uwyt4n