Entries from blogs tagged with “Kansas government”

Yoder might feel some relief after Republican wins Georgia’s special election

Republican Congressman Kevin Yoder of Kansas is probably breathing a little easier today after seeing the results of Tuesday's special election in Georgia.

In a suburban Atlanta district that looks remarkably like Yoder's 3rd District in suburban Kansas City, Republican Karen Handel edged out Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, 52-48 percent, in what is being described as the most expensive U.S. House race in history.

University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller was among those watching the Georgia race because of its obvious parallels to the Kansas 3rd District.

"I think they’re very similar," Miller said Tuesday afternoon, before the ballots were counted.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Miller noted that both districts have been reliably Republican in recent years. Both are primarily suburban in nature, with highly educated, upper-income, predominantly white voters. But in both districts, Democrat Hillary Clinton fared better than would normally be expected of a Democrat, while Republican Donald Trump fared worse. In fact, Miller noted, Clinton actually edged out Trump in the Kansas 3rd District, while Trump carried the Georgia 6th District by only 1.5 percentage points.

So if there were going to be any political backlash against the GOP as Trump's approval ratings continue to slide, it would probably show up in districts like the Georgia 6th and the Kansas 3rd.

"There are about 20 congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won that are currently held by Republicans," Miller said. "If you’re a Democrat looking for a path to a majority (in the U.S. House), it goes through those 20 districts."

Tuesday night, however, it didn't go through the Georgia 6th District, which might give Yoder reason for a sigh of relief. He has already drawn a number of challengers for the 2018 race, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, has targeted the Kansas 3rd as a high-priority district next year.

In fact, of the four special elections held so far to fill House seats vacated by people hired in the Trump administration, Republicans have held on to all of them, despite Democrats' hopes of making gains from an anti-Trump backlash.

The first such race was April 11 in the Kansas 4th District, vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes won that seat against an unexpectedly strong challenge from Democrat Jim Thompson, who has announced he will run again in 2018.

On May 25, Democrats hoped to pick up the Montana at-large seat formerly held by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. But Republican Greg Gianforte won the seat against Democrat Rob Quist, despite Gianforte being charged with assault just before the election for slamming a reporter to the ground.

In addition to the Georgia race, South Carolina also had a special election Tuesday to fill the House seat vacated by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. That race turned out to be unexpectedly close, but still Republican Ralph Norman edged out Democrat Archie Parnell, 51-48 percent.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he generally doesn't look at special elections as predictors of the next round of general elections.

"In a race like that, you always learn a lot about your tactics and techniques, things that work and don’t work. But as far as a bigger picture, predicting 2018, I don’t think there’s a lot to learn," Barker said. "People can over-analyze it. We’re more than a year out, 15 months, from the election, and the world will be different."

The DCCC, however, remains optimistic about the Kansas 3rd District, despite what happened in Georgia Tuesday night, and that organization rates the Kansas 3rd as being more competitive for Democrats than the Georgia 6th.

In fact, DCCC chairman Ben Ray Lujan sent out a memo Wednesday, after the Georgia and South Carolina races, saying he still believes Democrats have a chance to win back control of the House next year, despite losing an opportunity in Georgia.

"Last night’s results in Georgia were disappointing – we wanted to win and left everything on the field," Lujan wrote. "Despite the loss, we have a lot to be proud of. The margin was close in this deep red district, and Jon Ossoff pushed the race to the limit in both the primary and runoff by impressively mobilizing the base and persuading independents and moderate Republicans. We will carry those key lessons forward in order to compete in districts as Republican-leaning as Georgia, and in the dozens and dozens of districts on our battlefield that are much more competitive."

Among other things, Luján cited an internal poll that showed Trump with a 56 percent negative job approval rating in the Kansas 3rd District, and only a 34 percent positive rating.

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Kansas in the spotlight: End of state’s tax experiment resonates nationally as Trump’s plan mimics Brownback’s failure

When Kansas lawmakers overrode Gov. Sam Brownback's veto and reversed course on the tax policies he championed in 2012, it was predictable that the story would be front-page news in all the Kansas papers. What was less predictable was the extent to which the story would resonate nationally.

Much of the attention was certainly due to the fact that President Donald Trump is expected to roll out his own plans for federal tax reform soon, and many believe it will be modeled on the Kansas experiment.

Writers at POLITICO made that connection back in May, when the White House released a one-page summary of Trump's tax plan. "As the White House and Congress begin to debate tax reform and how it could affect the country, they should pay close attention to the plains, where Kansas has suffered fiscal and economic setbacks," the website reported May 4.

"The Kansas Experiment Is Bad News For Trump’s Tax Cuts," a headline on the fivethirtyeight.com blog proclaimed after the override vote. It went on to say the action in Topeka was possibly the most interesting policy news to happen all week, even outperforming former FBI Director James Comey's testimony to a congressional committee two days later.

Money magazine's Ian Salisbury also drew a link between the Brownback tax cuts and the upcoming Trump plan when he wrote, "the Republican-led legislature's reversal makes it trickier for Kansas to serve as a template for national tax reform."

"Donald Trump’s Tax Plan Would Turn the Whole U.S. Into Kansas," proclaimed another headline on Slate.com.

Other news outlets, however, saw the Kansas Legislature's action as a final verdict on the "supply-side" economic theories — dubbed "trickle-down" economics by some and "voodoo economics" by then-candidate George H.W. Bush — that economist Arthur Laffer first sold to the Reagan administration in the 1980s before bringing them to Kansas in 2012, theories that are now said to be forming the basis behind the Trump tax plan.

The New York Times editorial page, which was never a big fan of either Reagan or Laffer, seemed to chortle with its headline, "Kansas Rises Up Against the Trickle-Down Con Job."

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post even declared that Kansas "proved" how "Trickle-down economics is a nightmare."

But it wasn't just the left-leaning editorial pages that sat up and took notice of what happened in Kansas last week. Even the Brookings Institution, the living definition of centrism, called the vote in Kansas a verdict on supply-side economics.

"The Brownback tax cuts were one of the cleanest experiments the country has ever had in measuring the effects of tax cuts on economic growth, and it showed that they were a failure, wrote William G. Gale, a Brookings senior fellow in economic studies.

"Kansas’ experiment with tax cutting failed spectacularly — on its own terms," proclaimed another editorial in Business Insider.

West coast newspapers also took notice.

"It's the end of the road for the GOP's big tax experiment in Kansas," read a Los Angeles Times headline over a story that began, "The grand economic experiment on the prairie has ended."

It's not often that Kansas politics receives so much national attention, and usually when it does it's because of something the rest of the country frowns upon, like when the Kansas State Board of Education tried to downplay the concept of evolution in state science standards.

In 2014, Kansas briefly drew significant national attention when it looked like Republican Sen. Pat Roberts might be on the ropes for re-election, but that faded pretty quickly after he won by more than a 10 percent margin.

What's different about the tax story is that national news outlets are actually using Kansas as a source of objective facts and data to tell a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. And you can tell they're taking the task seriously by the fact that none of the articles mentioned above made any of the corny "Wizard of Oz" references that are usually obligatory in stories about Kansas.

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Despite resistance, lawmakers create foster care task force; Brownback signs four more bills as session nears end

The Kansas Senate sent two significant pieces of legislation to Gov. Sam Brownback's desk on Friday while Brownback signed four bills into law.

Among the bills the Senate passed was one establishing a child welfare task force that would spend the next two years studying the Department for Children and Families' management of the state's child welfare system, and the foster care system in particular, and to make recommendations for improvement.

The bill was prompted by a number of children who were either killed or mistreated while in the custody of the child welfare system. But DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore has resisted efforts to impose more oversight, and conservative lawmakers allied with Brownback pushed back against the idea.

The push to establish a new task force comes on the heels of a series of Legislative Post Audit reports that were highly critical of DCF's management of the programs.

The task force would be made up of legislators, court officers, children's advocates, law enforcement officials, social workers and others involved in the child welfare system. That group would break up into a number of working groups to study different aspects of the system, including foster care, family preservation, protective services, reintegration and DCF's general administration of child welfare.

The group would be expected to file a progress report to the Legislature in January 2018, but its final report would not come until January 2019, after the Brownback-Colyer administration has left office.

The bill passed the House Friday morning, 109-10. It passed the Senate a few hours later, 33-6.

The Senate also passed and sent to Brownback's desk a bill dealing with mandatory inspections of amusement park rides. That bill, which the House passed Thursday, delays some enforcement provisions of a new law just enacted earlier in the session making it a class B misdemeanor to operate an amusement park ride that has not been inspected and received a permit by the Kansas Department of Labor.

Meanwhile, Brownback signed four pieces of legislation into law Friday:

• Senate Bill 42, updating and revising portions of the juvenile justice code that underwent a massive overhaul last year.

Senate Bill 201, amending the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, adding members of the military to the definition of “protected consumers.”

House Bill 2092, making various changes to Kansas criminal procedure.

And House Bill 2132, authorizes port authorities to conduct certain sales.

Brownback has now signed 91 bills into law this session and has vetoed three. His veto of an income tax overhaul bill was subsequently overridden this week.

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Impact of tax veto override will be felt for years in Kansas

Kansans woke up Wednesday morning to a state that was dramatically transformed overnight in ways that will affect them for years to come.

The Kansas Legislature's decision the night before to override Gov. Sam Brownback's veto of a bill reversing his signature tax policies will have an almost immediate impact on their paychecks. The override will also have long-term effects on the state's ability to fund public schools and maintain its roads. And it will have far-reaching consequences on Brownback's own political legacy and on the political trajectory of the state.

People who work for a paycheck will start seeing smaller checks almost immediately. Starting July 1, employers will start withholding at the new higher rates. For individuals, that means 3.1 percent on the first $15,000 a year of income; 5.25 percent on the next $15,000; and 5.7 percent on any income over that. For married couples filing jointly, the income thresholds are double those for individuals.

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Currently, there are only two tax brackets: 2.7 percent on the first $15,000 and 4.6 percent on all income above that. Those were scheduled to go down next year under the so-called "glide path to zero" formula. But while the new rates are higher across the board, they are still lower than they were before the sweeping tax cuts were enacted in 2012.

For wage earners, the new tax rates take effect on July 1. So the increase in rates for tax year 2017 is only half the full amount. But employers will start withholding at the full rate to make up for the fact that the entire increase has to be paid in the second half of the year.

People who are self-employed or own small businesses, however, will want to start doing some tax planning immediately, because for them the new rates are retroactive to Jan. 1. Those are the roughly 330,000 people who, since 2013, have not paid any state income taxes on their nonwage business income under what came to be known as the "LLC exemption."

In addition to the higher rates, however, the law also phases back in some deductions and exemptions that were either reduced or eliminated under the 2012 tax plan, starting with deductions for medical expenses, mortgage interest and property taxes paid. It also will phase back in the child and dependent care tax credit that was eliminated in 2012.

According to budget experts, the changes will generate $591 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $633 million in the following fiscal year for a grand total of a little more than $1.2 billion. Opinions differ widely on how much of an impact that will have on the Kansas economy and on state government.

Responding to the override Wednesday morning, Brownback refused to answer questions from reporters. But in a long, almost stream-of-consciousness statement, he claimed the tax cuts had been a boost to the economy, while simultaneously arguing that the state's financial problems are the result of a weak economy being dragged down by low agricultural and energy commodity prices.

Nevertheless, he left no doubt that he thinks the Legislature made the wrong decision, and said he thinks it was simply the result of a lengthy legislative session that has tried the patience of lawmakers.

"This isn’t the right way to go," Brownback said. "There was another way. And we kept working with people but that just wasn’t in the cards and was difficult to happen, and you get late in the session, and I think a number of people threw their hands up and said this is the only way to go."

"The unfortunate thing is that it’s a bad way to go, and we’re going to have long-term negative consequences for the economy of this state and for the people of Kansas going this route," he said.

Lawmakers from the Lawrence area, all of whom supported the veto override, gave quite a different assessment.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, disputed the idea that the override was the result of lawmakers being tired and frustrated near the end of a long session.

"I think the elections in November were very critical for people letting their elected representatives know that they weren’t happy with the governor’s plans," he said immediately after the House's vote. "So here we are tonight. I think it’s a good win for Kansas citizens."

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said that without the tax bill, lawmakers would have had to make devastating cuts in funding for state services.

"It was looming heavy with Osawatomie (State Hospital)," she said, referring to the state psychiatric hospital that recently lost its certification to qualify for Medicare reimbursements. "Until we get those 60 beds certified again, it’s $1 million a month. And so we were worried about that."

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, acknowledged that as large as the tax increase is, it probably still isn't enough to pull the state out of the financial hole that has been dug since 2012.

"Long term, we cannot undo the damage of inadequate revenues," Sloan said. "And as was pointed out, we’re not fully funding the state retirement plan using these revenues, and we have to. That’s an obligation. So basically, this is a heck of a good start at undoing the damage that was caused by five or six years of failed tax policies."

And as for the future of Kansas politics, many observers said the veto override was a watershed moment that will define Brownback's political legacy because it represents a complete repudiation of the signature policy that Brownback himself had hoped would define him in history.

"I think when historians look back, Gov. Brownback talked about the lost decade, 2000-2010, when we had the double recessions and hits to our aerospace industry in Wichita," Holland said. "The years 2010-2020, in my mind, that’s going to be the lost decade for where we could have been had we not gone down this disastrous path to zero income taxes."

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Hospital gun bill in Brownback’s hands; governor says he’s weighing options

A bill that would exempt publicly owned health care facilities from having to allow concealed weapons arrived on Gov. Sam Brownback's desk Monday, but Brownback said he hasn't decided whether he'll sign or veto it.

"We’re looking at it, listening to individuals closely and carefully," Brownback said during a brief news conference.

During debate on the bill in both chambers last week, lawmakers gave conflicting accounts of what they had heard from the governor. Some said he had indicated he would sign the bill while others said he would veto anything other than the counter proposal endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which was soundly defeated in the Senate.

"I don’t recall doing either, but I had a lot of negotiations with a lot of people where a lot of ideas were thrown out," Brownback said. "And I may well have acted positive or negative towards any number of those."

Gov. Sam Brownback tells reporters he has not yet decided whether to sign or veto a bill that would exempt publicly-owned health care facilities from a requirement to allow concealed firearms starting July 1.

Gov. Sam Brownback tells reporters he has not yet decided whether to sign or veto a bill that would exempt publicly-owned health care facilities from a requirement to allow concealed firearms starting July 1. by Peter Hancock

"These are heart-felt, difficult issues," he went on to say. "This is a strong Second Amendment state, so you’re trying to address those issues. There are legitimate concerns on behalf of KU Medical Center, the behavioral hospitals, so you’re trying to balance those. But I had any number of negotiations where lots of different ideas were thrown out and reactions could have been interpreted many ways."

In 2013, Brownback signed a bill into law that requires virtually all state and municipally owned buildings other than K-12 school buildings to allow people to carry concealed firearms inside, unless they provide adequate security, including metal detectors and armed guards, to prevent anyone from bringing weapons inside. But they were allowed four years to come into compliance with the law, a period that expires at the end of this month.

The University of Kansas hospital pushed hard to extend its exemption permanently, arguing that it would become the only hospital in a seven-county metropolitan area where concealed guns were allowed.

Students and faculty from state college and university campuses also lobbied for a bill that would keep concealed weapons out of their campuses. Public hospitals and community mental health centers also asked to be excluded from the upcoming mandate. But neither the House nor Senate Federal and State Affairs Committees would endorse any of those proposals.

The tipping point came when the Brownback administration asked for a $12.5 million appropriation to install security at the state's four psychiatric hospitals, which many people argue are underfunded and understaffed as it is, especially Osawatomie State Hospital, which has lost its certification to receive Medicare reimbursements.

The bill that was finally agreed to would exempt those state psychiatric hospitals, the University of Kansas hospital in Kansas City, Kan., publicly owned hospitals such as Lawrence Memorial Hospital, municipally owned adult care homes and indigent health care clinics. But it would not exempt college and university campuses.

That bill passed the Senate on Thursday, 24-16, and the House, 91-33.

Brownback has 10 days to sign or veto the bill. If he takes neither action, it would become law without his signature.

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Lawmakers to work through weekend hoping to resolve 2017 session; idea of restoring teacher tenure floated

Kansas lawmakers plan to work on Saturday and possibly into next week in hopes of wrapping up the 2017 session after they inched closer on Friday to settling some of the major issues still on the table.

Most of Friday was spent with conference committees meeting on various subjects, while small groups of lawmakers met informally behind closed doors, mainly to discuss ideas for a tax package that they'll need to balance the state's budget and pay for a court-mandated increase in K-12 education funding.

The frustration of some lawmakers boiled to the surface in the Senate Friday afternoon when Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, questioned whether the Senate was really going to do anything Saturday. Olson, who works in banking and real estate, said the extended session has forced him to delay projects, which is now costing him money. He also noted that the Senate worked on only two minor bills on Friday, and the only business before the Senate Saturday will be to take a final vote on those bills.

Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, however, argued that the holdup is in the House, which has been unable to pass a tax bill since Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed an earlier tax bill in February. Without a revenue plan, he said, lawmakers cannot pass a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, less than a month away.


New tax ideas

Four new tax bills were introduced in the House Taxation Committee Friday, including one by Democratic Rep. Jeff Pittman, of Leavenworth, that appeared to spark interest across party lines.

His plan called for a formula-driven tax structure so that tax rates would creep up gradually for each dollar a person earns above a certain level. The idea, he said, is to avoid the steep spikes in tax rates when a person crosses from one tax bracket to another.

Under his plan, the first 96.4 percent of anyone's income would be taxed at 2.95 percent, a little higher than the current lower bracket of 2.7 percent. Each dollar of income above that amount would be taxed at a progressively higher rate that increases by a logarithmic curve.

Pittman, a freshman legislator who works as a logistics engineer, said nobody's tax rates would go up remarkably under his plan. A person making $1 million a year would pay 6.29 percent instead of the current 4.6 percent. Someone earning $500,000 would pay 5.9 percent, and someone earning $150,000 a year would pay 5.15 percent. Put together, however, his plan would generate about $620 million a year in new income tax revenue.

Committee chairman Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, said it was coincidental that three different groups working independently have been studying similar concepts. Pittman said he doubted his plan could pass this year, but it's one he hopes lawmakers will continue to study for possible consideration in the future.

But the House really came no closer Friday to finding a tax plan that can get the 63 votes needed for passage, let alone the 84 votes that may be needed to override another veto by the governor. The last tax bill considered in the House failed by a wide margin Tuesday night after it had passed the Senate by a near veto-proof margin.

House leaders have said they want to take first crack at the next tax bill, but on Friday were still working to find a combination of tax features that might pass.


State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, left, R-Wichita, confers with lead House negotiator Larry Campbell, right, R-Olathe, during a break in talks with the Senate on school funding legislation, Friday, June 2, 2017, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Watching them are Rep. Melissa Rooker, center left, R-Fairway, and Melinda Gaul, center right, an aide to House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, left, R-Wichita, confers with lead House negotiator Larry Campbell, right, R-Olathe, during a break in talks with the Senate on school funding legislation, Friday, June 2, 2017, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Watching them are Rep. Melissa Rooker, center left, R-Fairway, and Melinda Gaul, center right, an aide to House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

School finance

House negotiators threw a new wrinkle into the school finance discussion when they said Friday afternoon that they were willing to talk about restoring teacher tenure rights, which lawmakers repealed in 2014. That refers to the right of a veteran teacher to receive a due process hearing before an independent hearing officer before he or she could be summarily fired or not renewed for the following year.

The House actually passed a teacher tenure bill in February, over the objection of Republican leaders, and separately from the school finance plan, but it was never considered in the Senate.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, emphasized that he was not making an "offer" as part of the conference negotiations. But he said the House was willing to discuss the possibility of restoring tenure rights retroactively to all those teachers who had tenure in 2014 before it was repealed, while allowing two years for representatives from teachers unions and the Kansas Association of School Boards to work out a tenure plan they could agree upon. If, after two years, the two sides could not reach agreement, those rights would be repealed again.

Mark Desetti, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association, said he was pleased that Aurand, who chairs the House Education Committee, was willing to discuss tenure rights since Aurand had refused to allow that bill to be voted on in his committee. It was only brought to the floor of the House in February as an amendment onto another bill.

But Desetti said he did not like setting up a two-tier system where some teachers would have tenure rights for two years while others would not. And he said the two-year deadline essentially takes away any incentive for the school boards association to negotiate.

The conference committee is scheduled to meet again at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.


Foster care task force

Meanwhile, Senate negotiators finally started discussing the possibility of setting up a task force to study the state's foster care system and make recommendations for improvement, something the House approved by a 120-0 vote in mid-May 15, but which the Senate so far had declined to consider.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, said that was because the Public Health and Welfare Committee that she chairs was not authorized to meet during the wrap-up session. It is not exempt from legislative deadlines to report out bills. Also, however, several lawmakers have said that Senate leaders were reluctant to move forward on the issue because Gov. Sam Brownback and Department for Families and Children Secretary Phyllis Gilmore did not want further criticism of the foster care system.

Calls for an oversight task force came after a Wyandotte County man, Michael Jones, was given a life sentence in the death of his son, 7-year-old Adrian Jones, who had been tortured, starved, killed and his body fed to pigs. Records have shown that DCF investigated reports of abuse against Adrian Jones for years before his death.

The House plan would have set up a task force made up mainly of legislators. But the Senate offered Friday to form a different kind of task force with only four legislators. The governor and DCF secretary also would get one appointment, while the Kansas Judicial Council would appoint a number of law enforcement officers, court officials and others involved in child welfare cases.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said the task force would be completely independent from influence by DCF or the governor's office. But she also said there would be no expectation that the task force's recommendations would be implemented until 2019, after a new governor is sworn into office.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, a member of the House negotiating team who has been a harsh critic of DCF's management of the foster care system, said he wanted to think about that offer over night and that discussions would continue on Saturday.

That conference committee is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m.

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Tax vote exposes rift in the Democrat-moderate Republican coalition

When Democrats and moderate Republicans picked up a large number of seats in the 2016 elections, expectations were high that they would form a governing coalition that could check the power of the more conservative Republicans who have all but ruled in the Kansas Statehouse through most of the Brownback administration.

But there were signs Wednesday that relations between the two groups is being strained, particularly after a vote in the House late the night before when a $600 million income tax bill went down in flames, 37-85.

Only moments earlier, the bill passed through the Senate, 26-14, which was only one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override an all-but-certain veto from Gov. Sam Brownback. But when it reached the floor of the House shortly before midnight, the Democrat-moderate "coalition" appeared to rupture.

All four House members from Lawrence — Democrats Barbara Ballard, Boog Highberger and John Wilson; and Republican Tom Sloan — voted in favor of the bill, as did Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, whose district covers eastern Douglas County and Eudora.

But House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita voted no, as did other prominent Democrats such as Assistant Minority Leader Stan Frownfelter of Kansas City, Minority Whip Ed Trimmer of Winfield, and Rep. Brandon Whipple of Wichita.

Moderate Republicans also split on the vote, with Rep. Melissa Rooker of Fairway voting in favor, but Rep. Russ Jennings of Lakin switching to no before the final tally was taken.

One sign that relations between the two groups was growing tense was in a Twitter exchange on Wednesday between Ward and moderate Republican Tom Cox of Shawnee, who supported the tax bill.

First, there was Ward:

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Which prompted this reply from Cox.

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Later in the day, in a House Democrats caucus meeting, Ward rejected the accusation that he had not tried to work with moderates, outlining a list of things he said would get him, and probably several other Democrats, to vote yes on a tax bill, but he said moderates had not been willing to cede much ground on any of them.

The list included such things as restoring tax deductions and tax credits that benefit the middle class but were repealed or reduced in Brownback's tax plan, or a higher rate than what has been proposed so far for the upper bracket in a three-tiered tax system.

He also said he would consider concessions outside of the tax discussion, like allowing a vote on concealed-carry, or sending a bill to Brownback's desk establishing a task force to monitor the state foster care system.

In the caucus meeting, however, Ward also conceded that the caucus itself was split almost down the middle, with about half of the 40-member caucus saying tax plans like the one offered Tuesday night may be short of what they would like, but are a good first step toward funding schools and solving the state's budget crisis.

"The other group, which is about half-and-half, recognizes the work but says we need more because my district's going to pay a lot of those taxes and I don't have enough to convince them it's good for them long-term with what's on the table, so I want to see it improved enough that I can go home and defend it," Ward said.

But Sloan, who is counted among the moderate Republicans, said Democrats in that second group are being unrealistic.

"You never fix things in perpetuity," Sloan said during a interview in his office.

Sloan said he promised voters during his last campaign that he would vote for restoring a three-tiered income tax system that would generate enough money to fund core public services. But he said most voters he spoke with do not want to return to tax rates as high as they were before the 2012 tax cuts that Brownback championed.

Given that, Sloan said he thinks Democrats should accept the fact that they are not going to get everything they want, and they probably are not going to completely solve the state's budget problems with one bill in one legislative session.

Ward, meanwhile, tried to downplay tensions with moderate Republicans, saying he believes the two groups will eventually come together.

"Everyone's going to calm down, as we will, because we really want to do the right thing for Kansas," he said. "We're going to get in a room and get to 'yes.' It may be today; it may be tomorrow. ... I see no reason to beat up on (moderates)."

At that point, though, Ballard interjected, saying: "They're beating up on some of our people too."

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Clock ticking and money running out as lawmakers break for four-day weekend

Kansas lawmakers left the Statehouse Thursday for a four-day Memorial Day weekend with a lot of work still waiting to be done — and with money to keep the legislative session going quickly running out.

Lawmakers had budgeted for a 100-day session this year, and Thursday marked the 101st day. They've been working, though, with skeletal staff since early May, which probably saved some money. But Thomas Day, who heads the Legislature's Administrative Services Department, has said there is only enough money in the legislative budget to continue paying legislators their daily salary for a few more days.

Because neither chamber will be in session for more than two consecutive days, the four days they're out do not count as "legislative days," and lawmakers will not be paid for them.

That raises the prospect of lawmakers either having to work without pay, and with no clerical staff at all, even for the key committees, or having to pass a supplemental spending bill for themselves so they can finish the job of passing a school finance plan and a budget, both of which will require tax increases to fund.

It appeared on Thursday, however, that the logjam that has been holding back progress is finally starting to break. That's when the House gave final passage to a new school finance plan that would phase in over two years a $280 million increase in annual education spending, with much of that new money targeting the lowest-performing students.

Critics of that plan say they don't believe it is nearly enough to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court's definition of adequate funding. But optimists in the House and Senate are hoping it's enough of a good faith effort to convince the court not to follow through on its threat to close schools on July 1, although the court could order additional funding in the out years while keeping jurisdiction of the case.

Quietly, though, some lobbyists and lawmakers have been saying that Democrats and moderate Republicans may have overplayed their hand on school finance. By insisting on passing an education bill first, before they would even consider any tax bill, they ended up getting a much smaller funding bill than they had hoped for. And now it appears likely they'll get a smaller tax bill as well.

The tax debate

In February, both chambers passed a tax bill that would have rolled back many of the income tax cuts that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012. An override attempt passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Soon after, the Kansas Supreme Court handed down its decision in the school finance case, Gannon v. Kansas, striking down current school funding as inadequate and giving lawmakers until June 30 to pass a constitutional funding mechanism.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said that decision changed the entire landscape, prompting them to insist on addressing school funding before anything else. Others, however, said the outcome of that case was never in doubt, and the March 2 decision should have surprised nobody.

House Taxation Committee Chairman Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, said that passage of the school finance bill now gives lawmakers an idea of how large of a tax package will be needed to fund state government for the next two years, and he'll start working with the Senate in a conference committee to come up with another plan.

Senate back to work

The Senate, which has been pretty quiet for the past week, plans to debate its own school funding plan when senators return from the Memorial Day weekend. That plan — which was recently stripped of Sen. Jim Denning's controversial proposal to fund it through a tax on utility bills — calls for only about $240 million in new spending, phased in over two years. But it would establish a new, per-pupil funding formula similar to the one in the House bill.

The Senate also is expected to debate concealed-carry in the coming week. After learning that the cost of securing just the four state psychiatric hospitals could run as high as $25 million for the next two years, the Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced a bill last week to permanently exempt state and municipally owned hospitals, health care clinics, community mental health centers, nursing homes and other health care facilities from the law that would otherwise require them to allow people to carry concealed firearms starting July 1.

That would also exempt the University of Kansas hospital in Kansas City, Kan., as well as St. Francis Health Center in Topeka, which the KU Hospital Authority is about to acquire, in partnership with Nashville-based Ardent Health Systems.

It would not, however, exempt public college and university campuses from the concealed-carry mandate.

Two-year budget

The only other issue that must be resolved before lawmakers adjourn is typically the biggest issue of any legislative session: passage of a budget.

So far this session, the Senate is the only chamber that has even debated and voted on a budget plan, and that was a preliminary budget outline prepared before the officials revenue estimates were updated in mid-April. Since then, the House and Senate budget committees have put together their "omnibus" budget plans, but neither chamber has yet put those bills on the debate calendar.

One option, which would save time but would likely anger many legislators, is for the House and Senate to go directly into conference negotiations on a budget. That's allowed under the fairly lax rules of the Legislature because the issue of a two-year budget has passed out of one chamber and has been considered in committee by the other.

That would mean the full House and Senate would only have the opportunity to vote straight up-or-down on a budget plan negotiated by six people, three from the House and three from the Senate, with no opportunity to offer amendments.

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House plans school finance debate, possible new tax plan, on Day 100

The Kansas House plans to debate both a new tax bill and the long-awaited new school finance plan on Wednesday as the 2017 legislative session goes into its 100th day.

House and Senate tax negotiators agreed around 8 p.m. Tuesday to put yet another tax package up for a vote. The latest version is smaller than the one the House rejected Monday night that would have rolled back many of the income tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012, generating in excess of $600 million a year in new income tax revenue.

Instead, the latest proposal from House Republican leaders would generate less than $500 million a year through a combination of smaller income tax hikes, an increase in liquor taxes and the repeal of some sales tax exemptions on services.

“I understand that you want to test the temperature again in the House. We are more than willing to allow that,” Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson of Parker said in accepting the House’s offer.

But it remained unclear Tuesday night whether the new, smaller plan could get enough votes to pass the House. And even if it does, it may face stiff opposition in the Senate, which has never debated nor even held hearings on some of the elements in the new plan.

The plan also would require lawmakers to delay some payments into the state pension plan in order to close the projected revenue shortfalls over the next two years. Also, any additional money needed to fund a new school finance plan would have to be raised in separate legislation.

House and Senate tax negotiators agreed Tuesday night to put yet another tax bill up for a vote, starting Wednesday morning in the House. The new bill would raise less than $500 million a year through a combination of income taxes, sales taxes on selected services and higher liquor taxes.

House and Senate tax negotiators agreed Tuesday night to put yet another tax bill up for a vote, starting Wednesday morning in the House. The new bill would raise less than $500 million a year through a combination of income taxes, sales taxes on selected services and higher liquor taxes. by Peter Hancock

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have said they want to separate the issues of funding schools and funding the rest of the budget. But Democrats and many moderate Republicans have said they want a single tax bill that provides a long-term structural fix to the state’s revenue shortfalls.

Democrats and moderates also have said they would prefer to vote on a school finance package first, so they have a better idea of how big of a tax increase will be needed for the next two years. But GOP leaders, hoping to limit the size of the tax increase, so far have insisted on resolving the tax debate first.

It was not clear Tuesday night whether House leaders would allow the school finance debate to occur Wednesday afternoon if the tax bill fails in the morning.

The school finance plan would reinstate a kind of per-pupil formula similar to the one lawmakers repealed in 2015, setting base state aid at $4,006 per-pupil, with weightings added to certain categories of students to reflect the higher cost of educating low-income and bilingual students.

Overall it would add $180 million in new school funding in the 2017-2018 school year, followed by another $100 million increase the year after that. The per-pupil formula would then be adjusted with inflation in each subsequent year.

Public education advocates have said they think that’s too little, and they are hoping to amend the bill on the House floor to provide more funding.

GOP leaders, however, are expected to invoke a rule to prevent amendments that would add more spending. The so-called pay-as-you-go rule, or “PAY-Go” prohibits adding expenditures to an appropriations bill once it has come out of committee unless equal or greater cuts are made somewhere else as part of the same amendment.

Those who want to add more spending, however, argue that the majority of the bill’s subject matter deals with education policy, so the PAY-Go rule should not apply. It’s an issue that will be decided by whichever side can muster 63 votes to either apply or not apply the rule.

Lawmakers are coming under increasing pressure to break the logjam and finish out the session quickly. Tom Day, director of the Department of Legislative Administrative Services, said Tuesday that lawmakers are on the verge of exhausting their budget for this legislative session. In fact, much of the Legislature’s seasonal clerical staff was discontinued back on May 5. The only clerical staff still in the building are those assigned to the major tax, budget and school finance committees.

Day said he has already notified House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle that there are only a few more days worth of money in the budget to continue the session. If the session does continue, though, he said there are limited funds that can be shifted from other parts of the Legislature’s budget.

Other action Tuesday

Meanwhile on Tuesday, lawmakers passed and sent to Gov. Sam Brownback a few minor bills. Most of the day, though, was spent with House Republican leaders huddling behind closed doors, trying to regroup after Monday’s failed attempt to pass a tax bill.

The Senate gave final passage to House Bill 2277, which some people have started calling the “street party bill.” It allows cities and counties to designate “common consumption areas” where people can drink alcohol without having to remain inside the establishment where they purchased the drink.

It came mainly at the request of the city of Lenexa, which is developing a new “City Center” project that will feature a number of small retail establishments sharing a common courtyard. The idea is that people can buy pizza from one place, beer or wine at another, and sit at tables in the courtyard area.

But it could also be for temporary festivals or special events. So if the city of Lawrence, for example, wanted to block off part of Massachusetts Street on a night when the Jayhawks are in a major game, the bill would provide for that. However, drink cups would have to bear the name of the establishment that sold the drink, and bar owners would be liable for any violations that occur off of their premises but within the common consumption area.

The bill originally passed the House on April 3, 114-11. The Senate added a few unrelated amendments, one of which eliminates the 10-day waiting period for membership in a private club, then passed it on May 16, 35-5. The House on Tuesday concurred in the Senate changes, 97-22.

The Senate, meanwhile, gave final passage to a bill dealing with the state pension system and working after retirement. Generally, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System frowns on “double-dipping,” when someone retires to collect their KPERS benefits and then goes back to work at a job that no longer contributes into KPERS. But a number of public agencies, school districts in particular, say they sometimes have no choice but to hire retired employees for certain hard-to-fill positions, such as math or special education teachers.

Senate Bill 21 cleans up existing law governing working after retirement. One of the key parts is that starting Jan. 1, retirees under age 62 will have to wait 180 days before returning to work, and there can be no prearranged agreement about returning to work. Retirees over age 62 would only have to wait 60 days. There are other provisions dealing with how much the retiree is allowed to earn, and how much the employer needs to pay into KPERS while the retiree is working.

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Lawmakers adjourn for weekend despite earlier vows to keep working

The Kansas House and Senate adjourned Friday despite earlier vows that they planned to work seven days a week through the end of the session.

That decision came after a week in which lawmakers made virtually no progress toward passing a budget, a school finance plan or a tax package needed to fund both of those.

Both chambers have been locked in a stalemate for weeks over the order in which those issues should be debated. Democrats and moderate Republicans, who can form governing majorities in both chambers, have insisted on putting the budget and school finance first so they will know how big of a tax package is needed. But the more conservative Republican leaders in both chambers insist on settling tax policy first in order to put limits around the cost of the budget and school finance.

A House committee advanced its version of a school finance bill earlier in the week, but House leaders have not put that on the calendar for debate.

On Friday, though, Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, the House Democratic leader, tried to invoke a procedure that would have forced that bill onto the floor for immediate debate. But his motion, which needed at least 70 votes to pass, garnered only 39.

"It is Day 95, the 19th day of this veto session, and the most important issue is schools," Ward said afterward. "So the question is, why not today?"

Republicans, however, said there were plenty of reasons not to vote on it Friday. They argued that the bill had just come out of committee, and many members wanted to go home for the weekend to discuss it with constituents before voting.

In addition, many members on both sides of the aisle are still having amendments drafted that they want to offer on the floor. But that process was unexpectedly interrupted Friday when the offices of the Legislative Research Department in the basement of the Statehouse were flooded after a drain pipe leaked during heavy thunderstorms Thursday night and early Friday morning.

Ward also tried Friday to force debate on another major issue that leaders have kept off the floor, concealed firearms on college campuses and at state psychiatric hospitals and other publicly owned health care facilities.

Starting July 1, under a law passed in 2013, those institutions will be required to allow concealed-carry in their buildings unless they provide metal detectors and armed security guards in those buildings that can adequately prevent anyone else from bringing weapons inside.

During debate Friday over a bill dealing with consumer protection, Ward offered an amendment that included language from a bill that failed to get out of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee that would permanently exempt those institutions from the law.

But Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs that committee, objected to the amendment, saying it was out of order because it wasn't reasonably related to the underlying bill. He also said there were other bills pending on the calendar that would be more appropriate for such an amendment, but that in the meantime negotiations were still taking place between gun rights advocates and those who oppose concealed-carry in public facilities to come up with compromise language that could pass both chambers and that Gov. Sam Brownback would sign.

Ward, however, said he did not believe GOP leaders had any intention of allowing a debate on gun policy this session, and he did not think behind-the-scenes negotiations were necessary.

"I don't think the NRA should dictate gun safety in our state, and that's what's going on behind closed doors right now," he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has strongly opposed any attempt to roll back the 2013 law.

After his motion was ruled out of order, Ward offered another motion to overturn the ruling of the chair. But that motion failed when the House voted on a 72-42 vote to sustain the ruling that his motion was out of order.

"The reason his motions fail is because people want to compromise," said Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican. "They don't want a nine-hour debate where everybody just starts bringing every wacky amendment ... but these things never happen quick. When the original gun debate happened, it wasn't quick."

Friday marked the 95th day of the session, and lawmakers budgeted this year to go no longer than 100 days, which would be Wednesday of next week. But few people in the Statehouse believe they can wrap up their work in that short time.

Friday also marked the last day of class for many school districts in the state, which means they now go into their summer vacations without having any idea how much money they'll have to work with next year or how many teachers and administrators they can afford to employ.

The Kansas Supreme Court has given the Legislature until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to pass a constitutional school funding system that meets the court's tests for both adequacy and equity. The court also has threatened to close the public school system starting July 1 if lawmakers fail to meet that deadline.

That would bring summer school programs to a halt, as well as summer meal programs that serve hundreds of thousands of free meals throughout the state to low-income children during the summer.

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WSU economists forecast flat job growth in Kansas in 2017; state-led recession ‘potentially around the corner’

Economists at Wichita State University released a new economic forecast for Kansas on Wednesday, saying they expect employment to grow only half a percent in 2017.

"Unlike the U.S. economy, the Kansas economy may have reached its peak,” said Jeremy Hill, director of WSU's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, which published the report. “There are now multiple signs of an economy that is losing steam. Although the forecast calls for employment growth at half of the rate over the past five years, increased caution should be added as a state-led recession is potentially around the corner.”

That would be disappointing on many levels, most notably among people out there looking for jobs. But it's also a dark omen for the Kansas Legislature, which needs to put together a tax package that can produce revenues that grow over time in order to fund regular increases to public schools.

Here's the first problem: The state of Kansas gets the bulk of all the money it spends from three sources of revenue: income taxes, both individual and corporate; sales taxes; and property taxes.

Nearly all of the property taxes that the state raises, the statewide 20-mill levy, goes directly to public schools. And in the last fiscal year, income and sales taxes accounted for 85 percent of all the other taxes the state collected for its general fund.

Here's the second problem: None of those revenue sources has been growing at the kind of rate needed to sustain long-term growth in the cost of government services, particularly education services.

The WSU report came out the same day that the Pew Charitable Trusts issued a report showing that total revenue in most states dipped in the second and third quarters of 2016, but still exceeded their pre-Great Recession peaks. But as the chart below shows, total revenue in Kansas has never caught up to that peak set in the first quarter of 2008.

Chart showing percentage change in quarterly state revenues compared to pre-recession peak, Kansas vs. 50-state total. Source: Pew Charitable Trusts.

Chart showing percentage change in quarterly state revenues compared to pre-recession peak, Kansas vs. 50-state total. Source: Pew Charitable Trusts. by Peter Hancock

State budget officials have been telling lawmakers for months that sales taxes have been basically flat for the last couple of years and are expected to remain flat into the foreseeable future.

That's due to a lot of things — people avoiding sales taxes by shopping online or across the state border; and general "deflation" in the price of consumer goods that the state levies its sales tax on, which in turn is probably due to the increasingly global nature of the world's economy and the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries.

That's one of the reasons that Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, cited Wednesday when he proposed levying a fee on monthly utility bills. But even if that were to pass, that too is a revenue stream that will only grow as the population grows, and that's something else that's been kind of stagnant in Kansas.

But it's also the reason why lawmakers are now considering extending the sales tax to certain parts of the service sector, the one fastest growing sector of the economy, and the sector that WSU says will outpace all the others in job growth this year.

Meanwhile, according to data from the Kansas Department of Revenue's Property Valuation Division, assessed real estate values in Kansas have grown only about 3 percent a year, on average, for the last three years. That is, however, an improvement over the 1.3 percent growth in 2013 and 0.6 percent growth in 2012.

Much of that growth, it should be noted has been attributable to Johnson and Douglas counties. Most of the rest of Kansas has seen flat or declining property value, especially in rural areas where oil and gas production account for a large part of their property valuation base.

So, absent any kind of real estate "boom" on the horizon, which appears unlikely, or a reversal in the downward trend in the price of consumer goods, which is also unlikely, Kansas needs steady and sustained growth in the one major revenue stream left: income taxes.

And that's why the WSU forecast, if accurate, portends problems for state government.

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Senate finishes work for the week; Kansans for Life official to be deputy state treasurer

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said Thursday that there would be no more business on the floor of the Senate this week, but that starting Monday the Senate would work seven days a week through the end of the session.

The Senate will hold a "pro forma" session Friday so it can receive messages from the House or the governor, but that does not require a quorum of senators to be present. Some senators who serve on committees or conference committees meeting Friday also will have to show up, but the other senators can enjoy an unplanned three-day weekend, which includes Mother's Day on Sunday.

Denning, an Overland Park Republican, made that announcement at the end of a short work day in which the Senate passed two noncontroversial conference committee bills, including one dealing with human trafficking.

The announcement came one day after the Senate failed to pass a tax bill that would have rolled back many of Gov. Sam Brownback's signature income tax cuts from 2012. It would have raised a little over $1 billion in new revenue over the next two years.

Most Democrats and conservative Republicans opposed the bill, albeit for different reasons. Democratic leaders have been holding out on supporting any tax bill until lawmakers pass a school funding formula, arguing that they need to know how much it will take to fund schools before they vote on a tax bill.

Denning, however, seems poised now to work with conservatives on a smaller bill that he says Brownback will either sign or let become law without his signature.

Besides a tax package, lawmakers must pass a school finance formula by June 30 that complies with a Kansas Supreme Court order to provide adequate and equitable funding for public schools. They also have to pass a two-year spending plan for the rest of state government.

The House, by contrast, plans to debate four bills on Friday, including one establishing a Foster Care Task Force that will review the Department for Children and Families' management of the foster care system and make recommendations for improvement.

LaTurner names staff

Newly minted State Treasurer Jake LaTurner announced two new staff picks Thursday, including one who currently serves as assistant deputy director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, Peter Northcott.

Northcott was named to the post of deputy treasurer. LaTurner also named Braden Dreiling as director of public relations.

LaTurner did not mention Northcott's ties to Kansans for Life in the press release announcing the appointments, but Northcott lists that as his current position on his LinkedIn page. He is also listed as a registered lobbyist for that group on the Kansas Secretary of State's website. Before taking that job this year, he served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, who was defeated for re-election in 2016.

In 2011 and 2012 he served as a legislative liaison in Brownback's office.

"Peter and Braden both have experience in government and private businesses," LaTurner's press release stated. "They both began their professional careers working in the Statehouse for government officials. Peter holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Kansas, and Braden holds a degree in Political Science and is expected to complete his Masters in Business Administration in 2018, both from Fort Hays State University."

Dreiling worked in 2012 and 2013 as field director for the campaign of former Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, who is now a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, according to Dreiling's LinkedIn page. He then moved to Bruce's office, where he was caucus liaison until last year. He currently works as digital marketing manager for Aldersgate Village, a retirement community in Topeka.

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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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Tax committees go back to the drawing board; new numbers show depths of budget crisis

Kansas lawmakers made little progress Thursday toward resolving a stalemate over tax policy, but the House tax committee got a look at some new numbers that illustrate the depths of the state's impending budget crisis.

In short, the committee was told, they will need to raise about $1.5 billion in new revenue over the next two years if they want to fund everything currently in the House's draft budget, plus fully fund payments into the state's pension system and pay for the draft school finance plan that adds $150 million each year in base per-pupil spending.

And even with that, the state would still need to sweep nearly $300 million out of the highway program each year to balance the budget. So, put another way, that brings the full budget shortfall to a little more than $2 billion over the next two years.

"It's nice to think we could get one package that addresses this," Chairman Steven Johnson of Assaria said after the meeting. "Doing the math on how we pass a package, or multiple packages, unfortunately I think we've discovered we may have a ways to go to get to whatever that looks like."

Johnson's committee met at the end of a day in which there was virtually no progress toward finding a tax package that could get enough votes to overcome an all-but-certain veto by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, works to put together another tax package for the Senate to consider while Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, says it's still too early to debate taxes before deciding on a school finance plan.

Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, works to put together another tax package for the Senate to consider while Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, says it's still too early to debate taxes before deciding on a school finance plan. by Peter Hancock

On Tuesday and Wednesday, both chambers abruptly called off scheduled votes on tax proposals that only added up to about $1 billion or less over the next two years. The House-Senate conference committee that produced those bills was scheduled to meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, but that meeting was cancelled early Thursday morning, and by the end of the day it had not been rescheduled.

Instead, the full House and Senate tax committees met separately to look over budget numbers and start discussions about other tax options.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks so far has been that Democrats, along with many moderate Republicans, don't want to vote on a tax plan until they've at least settled the issue of school finance. And their votes are needed to get a two-thirds super majority in both chambers to override a governor's veto.

But GOP leaders in both chambers appear to believe that they can exert more control over spending growth if lawmakers settle the revenue question first.

The Senate tax committee spent the day working on two different tax plans. One of those would only repeal the most controversial of the tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012, the so-called "LLC loophole" that completely exempts certain kinds of non-wage business income from state taxes.

All of the other major tax bills lawmakers have considered have packaged that together with other kinds of tax increases that will be less popular with voters, including across-the-board increases in individual income tax rates.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who chairs the Senate tax panel, said leaders in the Senate have requested that bill. It is believed that a stand-alone bill repealing the LLC exemption would be hard for anyone to vote against. But it also would only generate about $230 million a year in new taxes, and separating that issue would make it much more difficult to pass other, less popular tax measures.

That same committee also worked on cobbling together another, more comprehensive tax measure. But Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the committee, repeated the Democrats' insistence that it is still too early to vote on a tax measure.

"I strongly believe that we need to know what our school finance program is going to cost us before we do a tax plan," Holland said.

Meanwhile, Johnson said, there are other efforts taking place behind the scenes to find a consensus on tax policy.

"I think there are some other efforts that are going on, including some efforts that the governor had had in working with a plan with some of the leadership to see what pieces we can get through," he said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has said she intends to bring the Senate into session both Saturday and Sunday this week if there is no progress on a tax plan by then. House leaders have not said whether they plan to work through the weekend.

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Executive director of Kansas Democratic Party stepping down

Kerry Gooch announced Tuesday night that he will soon step down as executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.

Gooch first started working for the party four years ago at age 22. He became executive director in 2015 after what had been, for Democrats, a disappointing election cycle the year before. That was when the party narrowly lost the governor's race and lost five seats in the Kansas House.

He then helped steer the party through a much more successful campaign in 2016 when Democrats saw a net gain of 12 seats in the House and one seat in the Senate.

During a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Gooch said he told the party's executive committee that he would stay on board long enough for them to hire a replacement, a process he said might take about 60 days. He also said he has no immediate plans for what he will do next, but he indicated it's likely he will be seen on the campaign trail in 2018.

"Now is the time for the KDP to move into the next phase as we head towards the 2018 elections. I’m ready for my next adventure — maybe I’ll have time to join my county party or finally get good enough to beat my 93-year-old grandfather in a round of golf," Gooch said in a statement released by the party Tuesday night.

Gooch is the grandson of former state Sen. U.L. "Rip" Gooch, of Wichita.

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School funding plan may not get to full House before next week

Kansas lawmakers may have to wait at least several more days before they get a chance to debate and vote on a proposed new formula for funding public schools.

That's one of the Legislature's "must-do" tasks this year because the Kansas Supreme Court has said the block grant formula that has been funding schools for the last two years is unconstitutional and must be replaced by June 30 if schools are to remain open.

Just before lawmakers adjourned in early April for a three-week break, a House committee that has been working on a new formula settled on the outline of a plan that would add roughly $150 million in new base per-pupil funding over each of the next five years. It also would fully fund all-day kindergarten and make a number of other policy changes.

That means by the 2021-2022 school year, the state would be spending at least $750 million a year more than the state spends now, and the cost could go even higher, depending on enrollment growth and other factors.

During a meeting Tuesday, members of that committee got a refresher summary of all the things contained in that bill, and Chairman Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, laid out his schedule on how to proceed.

On Wednesday, he said, the group will hear from Taxation Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Assaria, about possible revenue sources to pay for the plan, and the possibility of packaging those tax provisions together with the spending and policy changes all into one bill.

Then on Thursday, the committee will hear from the Legislature's newly hired legal counsel, former Sen. Jeff King, who will offer his advice about whether the plan would meet the constitutional requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.

Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who serves on the committee, said that means it could take until Monday of next week before the bill is sent to the full House.

"It's not perfect. Not everything I wanted is in it. It doesn't include everything I think it should, but I'm overall pleased with the product," Karleskint said. "We've got a long way to go."

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said she was pleased with the bill as well, adding that the business and education communities in her Johnson County district expressed strong support for it during the recent break.

"Very, very, very loud support from the audiences that I was addressing, my constituents," Rooker said.

One piece of the bill that may prove controversial, however, is a provision that extends, but puts new limits on, a program that offers tax credits to corporations that contribute to scholarship funds to enable certain low-income students in troubled public schools to attend private schools.

That program was established two years ago when conservatives had solid majorities in both chambers. But Democrats and moderate Republicans made big gains in the 2016 elections, especially in the House, and many of them would prefer to repeal that program entirely.

But of the key Democrats on the House panel, Reps. Tom Sawyer and Henry Helgerson, both of Wichita, said they were comfortable with the compromise that had been reached. That compromise requires the private schools receiving the money to be state accredited and to meet certain minimum academic performance standards.

Just how long it takes to get to the full House could determine how long it will take to get through the rest of the session. Earlier in the day Tuesday, support in the Senate collapsed for a proposed income tax plan aimed at closing a projected budget shortfall next year.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans said they first want to see how much the school finance plan is going to cost before they vote on a tax bill, and some would prefer to vote on a single, comprehensive tax bill rather than having to pass multiple tax bills to address different parts of the budget. Republican leaders in the Senate, however, are saying they want to keep the school finance and budget-balancing tax issues separate.

Some lawmakers are concerned, though, that putting the school funding formula and a tax plan to pay for it all in one bill could raise constitutional issues. The Kansas Constitution generally prohibits the Legislature from passing bills that contain multiple subjects. But others point out that lawmakers did that in 1992 when they passed the last school finance plan, which established both a statewide per-pupil funding formula and a uniform statewide property tax to help pay for it.

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First day back: New tax plan with old provisions moves forward; appointed senator takes seat

The Kansas Senate could vote as early as Tuesday on a new, revised tax package that is changed only slightly from the one Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed earlier in the session.

House and Senate negotiators met late in the afternoon on their first day back in session following a three-week break and quickly agreed to send the modified plan to the full chambers.

Like the earlier plan, it would reverse course on many of the signature income tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012 and 2013 by reinstating a third, upper tax bracket and repealing the so-called LLC exemption that allows more than 330,000 business owners and farmers to pay no state taxes on their business income.

The major difference, though, is that the new individual tax rates would take effect July 1 of this year, instead of being retroactive to Jan. 1. Both Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning had cited that retroactive provision as reasons why they voted against the earlier bill, which came up three votes short of the two-thirds majority that was needed to override Brownback's veto.

Because of that change, the new plan would raise slightly less than the $1 billion over the next two years that the previous bill would have raised. But it remains to be seen whether it can reach the threshold of 27 votes in the Senate that it would need to overcome a virtually certain second veto by the governor.

House Taxation Committee Chairman Steve Johnson, left, discusses details of the latest income tax plan with the two Democrats on the conference committee, Sen. Tom Holland, center, and Rep. Tom Sawyer.

House Taxation Committee Chairman Steve Johnson, left, discusses details of the latest income tax plan with the two Democrats on the conference committee, Sen. Tom Holland, center, and Rep. Tom Sawyer. by Peter Hancock

Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said she does not plan to vote for the bill, but added, "They said they have 27 without me."

Kansas currently has just two income tax brackets. For married couples filing jointly, they are 2.7 percent on the first $30,000 of taxable income and 4.6 percent on any income over that. For single tax filers, the cutoff point is $15,000 a year.

Under the new plan, the lower rate would remain the same. But in tax year 2018 the upper rate would rise to 5.45 percent, and a new, higher bracket of 5.49 percent would be created for taxable income over $100,000 a year. For single tax filers, the cutoff points would be one-half of those for married couples.

For the current tax year, 2017, the increases would only be half as large because the new rates would not take effect until the second half of the year. That means employers would start withholding at the new, higher rates, on July 1, but each person's tax liability for 2017 would only go up by half as much as it would for a full year.

"It is our hope that this will address the retroactive concern," said Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Asaria, who chairs the House tax committee. He said the major objection about a retroactive tax increase was that it would be difficult for employers and accountants to adjust payroll withholding mid-way through a year for a tax change that affects the entire year.

There was also concern, however, that waiting until Jan. 1, 2018, to make the change would fail to raise enough money to balance the budget for the fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2017, and ends June 30, 2018.

"We were trying to figure out a way, how do we move forward and still potentially balance the 2018 budget," Johnson said.

But Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate tax panel, said while it may be enough to fix the state's current budget shortfall, it does not raise enough money to add any new funding for K-12 public schools, which the Kansas Supreme Court has said are currently receiving inadequate funding.

"My uncomfortability with this plan here is that it does not in any way address the additional dollars we're going to need to satisfy the courts," Holland said. "In essence, we're asking legislators really to take two bites at the apple if they want to look at income tax to satisfy not only the structural deficit we have in the current budget but also to use those additional income tax dollars to fund schools."

But there is no guaranty that lawmakers will turn to income taxes again to fun a new school finance plan. During a meeting earlier in the day of the House tax committee, members talked about a number of other tax options such as higher cigarette taxes or levying retail sales taxes on certain kinds of services.

The income tax bill was structured so that the Senate has to vote on it first. House leaders insisted on that because the Senate is where the veto override attempt failed on the last bill. The override attempt succeeded in the House.

That means it may end up being the first meaningful vote of the Senate's newest member, Republican Richard Hilderbrand of Baxter Springs.

Newly-appointed Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, gets acquainted with Senate President Susan Wagle during his first day on the job. Hilderbrand takes the seat recently vacated by Jacob LaTurner, standing at right, who is now state treasurer.

Newly-appointed Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, gets acquainted with Senate President Susan Wagle during his first day on the job. Hilderbrand takes the seat recently vacated by Jacob LaTurner, standing at right, who is now state treasurer. by Peter Hancock

Hilderbrand was sworn into office Monday morning after being selected the previous night by Republican Party officials in the 13th District southeast Kansas to fill the vacant seat created when Jacob LaTurner was appointed state treasurer.

Senate GOP leaders said they knew little about Hilderbrand, a 48-year-old insurance agent who served five years on the Cherokee County Commission. He said he had to step down from that seat in 2015 after getting married and moving out of his district.

LaTurner had been considered a solid ally of Gov. Brownback's who voted against the previous tax bill and the attempt to override Brownback's veto. But speaking to reporters after his swearing-in, Hilderbrand gave little indication about his leanings on the major issues of the session.

"I support the constituents of District 13," he said. "I'm going to vote the way I feel best represents them."

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The problem with sales taxes

The Kansas Legislature's top tax analyst tried to explain something to lawmakers Thursday that many people are still trying to get their heads around: Why, at a time when there is modest but measurable inflation in the retail sector, is Kansas not seeing similar growth in retail sales tax collections?

That was one of the puzzles buried inside the new revenue estimates that were released last week. Despite the fact that the U.S. inflation rate is expected to hover around the 2 percent range for the next couple of years, retail sales tax collections in Kansas are forecast to grow less than 1 percent each year.

Chris Courtwright, the longtime principal economist in the Legislature's nonpartisan Research Department, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees Thursday that essentially flat growth in sales tax collections may be "the new normal," at least for the foreseeable future.

Courtwright said that's because the basket of goods and services that make up the Consumer Price Index — the basic measure of inflation — is made up of all kinds of things consumers buy, some of which are going up in price and some of which aren't.

The problem for Kansas, he said, is that the category of things that are rising in price are things Kansas doesn't tax: rent, health care and college tuition, to name just a few. The things Kansas does tax, such as food, clothing, computers and microwave ovens, are generally going down in price.

This wasn't the first time that the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group has noted the trend in its semi-annual revenue forecasts. That group, which includes university economists, the Research Department, the governor's budget office and the Department of Revenue, also noted it in their report in November when they slashed the current-year revenue forecast by $346 million, or 5.5 percent. One third of that reduction, or $115 million, was due to lowered expectations of sales tax collections.

The problem also is not unique to Kansas. People here buy from and sell to the same commercial economy as everyone else. But it does raise some interesting questions for lawmakers when they return next week for the final phase of the 2017 session, much of which will be focused on coming up with a tax plan to close a revenue shortfall estimated at more than $800 million over the next two years.

For decades since Kansas first enacted a sales tax in the 1930s, the state could count on natural growth in that revenue stream of 3-5 percent each year on average. That appears no longer to be the case. And adding to the stress is the fact that those items that are rising in cost — particularly health care and education — are the very things that state government buys a lot of.

One solution that frequently comes up when discussing sales taxes would be to expand the sales tax base to capture those items that are currently exempt, primarily services. But one of the biggest categories of "services" in Kansas is health care services, and one can only imagine the outrage from constituents that would erupt when they start seeing a sales tax charge tacked on to their doctor bills.

Another option on the table may sound counter-intuitive at first. That would be to lower the sales tax rate, particularly on food, which some people argue is so high now that it's actually driving consumers in border counties to shop in Missouri or Nebraska, where sales taxes are lower. But there is little concrete data to show how much of that is actually happening, or how much revenue, if any, Kansas could recapture by pegging its sales tax rate to those of neighboring states.

There is also little Kansas can do on its own to capture more online retail business with its sales tax. It would take an act of Congress to establish a uniform national policy on taxing online sales, and neither the Trump administration nor the Republican-controlled Congress is currently in a mood to pass anything that even smells like a tax increase. In fact, quite the opposite.

That means when lawmakers return next week, they will probably have to look elsewhere to find a fix for the state's current budget shortfall.

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Brownback: ‘No reason’ St. Francis hospital should close

Saying there is at least one, and possibly more companies negotiating to buy the troubled St. Francis Health Center in Topeka, Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday there is "no reason" that hospital should close later this year.

"We now have a buyer — at least one, we think there may be more options come forward as well, so there really should be no reason that St. Francis closes," Brownback said. "We have a legitimate buyer. It's a known entity that is financially capable of doing this. That may not be the one that (its parent company SCL Health) picks, but we have one, so there really should be no reason for St. Francis to close."

Gov. Sam Brownback talks with reporters in the Statehouse, saying he is confident St. Francis Health Center in Topeka will not be forced to close.

Gov. Sam Brownback talks with reporters in the Statehouse, saying he is confident St. Francis Health Center in Topeka will not be forced to close. by Peter Hancock

He was referring to California-based Prime Healthcare Foundation, which announced over the weekend that it was interested in acquiring St. Francis, although no agreement has been reached. The company owns and operates 14 community-based nonprofit hospitals around the country.

St. Francis is a 378-bed hospital that employs roughly 1,600 people in Topeka. Its owners have been searching for a buyer since last summer, and last week they said regardless of whether they find one, they will not continue operating the hospital beyond this summer.

SCL Health said it would wait two weeks, until May 2, to line up a buyer before it would announce plans for a shutdown.

Closure of the hospital would not only have a big impact on the local Topeka economy and the regional health care market, but it would also have political implications in the debate at the Kansas Legislature over Medicaid expansion. SCL Health officials have cited the state's refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act as one of the factors contributing to the hospital's financial problems.

In March, Brownback vetoed a bill that would have expanded the Kansas Medicaid program, known as KanCare, to extend coverage to an estimated 155,000 additional people. An effort to override that veto narrowly failed in the House on April 3.

Brownback said Wednesday that he had met recently with officials from Prime Healthcare, the only company that has publicly expressed an interest in acquiring St. Francis. But he said other potential buyers have asked for more information about the hospital as they weigh whether to make a proposal.

"I talked with (SCL Health CEO) Mike Slubowski twice this week about this, about getting offers. They're the ones that have to sort through them," Brownback said. But at this point in time, we have a buyer. There are negotiations going on with them and others, so I don't know who they're going to pick, but there really should be no reason that St. Francis closes."

Reply 5 comments from Sam Crow Phillip Chappuie Michael Kort

Many wrote off special 4th District race, but they shouldn’t have

In the wake of a surprisingly close special election on Tuesday, state and national Democrats have to be asking themselves one question: Who lost the 4th District?

The more important question, though, ought to be what, if anything, does the race between Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes and first-time Democratic candidate James Thompson portend about the next round of congressional races in 2018?

Estes won the race, 53-46 percent, over Thompson, but heading into the special election, people in both parties assumed the margin would be much wider than that. Only six months earlier, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, whose appointment as CIA director triggered the special election, carried the district by a 31-point margin over Democrat Dan Giroux. Trump himself carried the district by a 27-point margin.

Contrary to what President Donald Trump tweeted out Wednesday morning, neither the state nor the national Democratic Party put a whole lot of money into the race between Estes and Thompson, at least until the final days of the race.

None by Donald J. Trump

Only in the final days, when polling numbers and advance voting trends showed the race might be winnable, did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee start making phone calls into the district, while the liberal activist website the Daily Kos started rounding up phone bank volunteers and raising money online for Thompson.

Tyler Law of the DCCC said that group reached about 25,000 voters by phone on Monday and Tuesday. And Chris Reeves, a Kansas Democratic Party activist who occasionally blogs for the Daily Kos, said that organization raised a little more than $160,000 during the final push.

Republicans also appear to have been caught off guard by the closeness of the race, but they reacted more quickly. Starting Tuesday, April 4, according to reports on file with the Federal Election Commission, they poured in $160,000 worth of advertising into the Wichita media market, with more than half of that spent on negative advertising against Thompson.

By congressional race standards, that’s a fairly paltry sum and a reflection of the fact that Kansas is a pretty low-cost, low-risk state when it comes to campaign spending.

That advertising was followed by a series of robocalls to GOP voters over the weekend from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and a personal fly-in appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Kansas GOP presidential caucuses last year by a wide margin over Trump.

There were signs of intra-party strife early on when Thompson complained that the Kansas Democratic Party turned down his request for a $25,000 postcard mailing. Officials with the state party, however, said they simply didn’t have it, although they said they did provide plenty of staff and other logistical support.

Democrat James Thompson speaks to supporters at the Murdock Theatre in Wichita, Kan., Tuesday, April, 11, 2017. Thompson came up short in his bid to beat Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes in a special election to replace current CIA director and former U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo in the Kansas 4th congressional district. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Democrat James Thompson speaks to supporters at the Murdock Theatre in Wichita, Kan., Tuesday, April, 11, 2017. Thompson came up short in his bid to beat Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes in a special election to replace current CIA director and former U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo in the Kansas 4th congressional district. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez told the Washington Post that the national party had no plans to invest money in the race. “We can make progress in Kansas,” Perez was quoted as saying. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.”

The lack of attention paid by the Democratic National Committee to states like Kansas has been a sore spot for many years. But frustration with what some Democrats see as a “bi-coastal” mentality of the national party reached a crescendo after the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote despite winning the popular vote by more than 3 million ballots.

Clinton won only five states outside the West Coast, the Mid-Atlantic Coast and New England.

Furthermore, of the 48 seats in the U.S. Senate that Democrats currently control, including the two independents who caucus with Democrats, only 10 of them are from states that Trump won in 2016. And of those 10, nine are up for re-election in 2018.

Back home in Kansas, it’s easy to make the argument that investing in a Democratic campaign is an act of futility. Republicans have run the table in every statewide and federal race here since 2010. For those who are counting, that's a streak of 32-0. But the results of Tuesday’s special election in the 4th District may indicate that it might be worth the DNC’s time to spend just a little bit of money here.

Thompson has already indicated he plans to make another run for that seat in 2018. In addition, though, at least two other congressional districts in Kansas are now seen as potentially in play.

In the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, including Lawrence, Rep. Lynn Jenkins has already announced her plans to retire, making that an open race next year. And Democrats see signs of hope in the Kansas City-centered 3rd District, which Clinton carried by a narrow margin in 2016 while incumbent GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder won with barely 51 percent of the vote.

Granted, the political landscape will look much different in 2018 than it did this week, when the campaign schedule was compressed into just a few weeks and preliminary estimates put voter turnout at just 27 percent. There will also be an open race for governor at the top of the ballot, which could drain a lot of local resources away from congressional races.

Still, in light of Tuesday's results, there is every reason to think that congressional races in Kansas will be more competitive in 2018 than they have been for the last four cycles.

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