Entries from blogs tagged with “Kansas government”

Threat of furloughs looms large as Kansas tax debate continues

Threat of furloughs looms large as Kansas tax debate continues

The Kansas Senate on Monday shot down another tax proposal aimed at closing the state’s $400 million budget gap as the threat of having to furlough thousands of state employees looms on the horizon.

Sunday, June 7, marks the start of a new two-week pay period for state workers. Checks for that pay period will go out after July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. But without a budget, and a tax plan to fund it, state government will go into a partial shutdown in which all non-essential employees will be told to stay home.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s press secretary Eileen Hawley said Monday each state agency defines for itself which employees are considered “essential” and which ones are not. She said that’s based on what’s called a “Continuity of Operations Plan,” or COOP, that agencies have in place for events like severe blizzards or other kinds of emergencies.

Hawley estimated that the state currently employs about 35,000 people statewide. Among the largest groups of state workers are those employed at the six Regents universities, including Kansas University in Lawrence.

She said employees who are designated as essential can be ordered to report to work, even if there is not yet a budget in place to pay them.

Both the governor’s office and legislative leaders have said the possibility of mass furloughs happening next week is extremely remote.

The bill put forward Monday in the Senate had several elements — many of the elements that Brownback proposed during a news conference Saturday, including a higher overall sales tax rate, and an income tax exemption for an estimated 388,000 low-income tax filers.

But as they did Sunday night, Democrats divided the question, forcing senators to vote individually on each piece, starting with the more popular piece, exempting the low-income wage earners from income taxes.

But when senators had to vote just on the sales tax portion, it went down in defeat, 8-30.

It was a carefully orchestrated move by Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, who recalled how Democrats and moderate Republicans were attacked during the 2012 election cycle because they had voted for a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase in 2010.

Recalling a speech that Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, gave during the 2010 debate, Hensley said: “She talked about how a 1-cent sales tax increase would ruin the economy. It would be terrible for families. It was something that she was passionately opposed to. And at that time, our economy was far different than it is today. At that time, our economy was in a tremendous downturn.”

“Now with the economy far different, we're bbing asked to support an eight-tenths of a cent sales tax increase,” he said. “It’s not to fill in a revenue shortfall caused by downturn in the economy. It’s to fill in a shortfall that was caused by a failed economic experiment that’s been imposed on this state and this legislature. … And what I don’t understand is why we cannot acknowledge what the real problem is.”

Senate Republican Leader Terry Bruce, of Hutchinson, however, said the public supports the GOP tax policy of lowering income taxes, especially on businesses, and shifting the state toward more reliance on “consumption” taxes such as sales tax and excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol.

“We’ve since had two elections based on the higher consumption, lower income tax formula, and Republicans have been very successful in both those efforts,” he said. “And I think if we keep marching towards zero income tax, we’ll continue to have success at the polls.”

Brownback has told lawmakers that he will veto proposals that have been floated in the Legislature to reverse course on part of the 2012 tax plan by reimposing income taxes on the non-wage, “pass through” income of business owners. But even some Republicans have insisted that some kind of tax on non-wage income needs to be part of this year’s package.

“I really don’t give a damn what the governor thinks,” Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said during a GOP caucus meeting Monday. “If the governor doesn’t want to admit we have a problem, let’s get out of here and let him solve it.”

Bruce, however, said it’s been hard enough finding the 21 votes needed in the Senate, and 63 in the House, simply to pass a tax measure.

“If the governor vetoes something, our numbers have to go up,” he said.

That’s because it takes 27 votes in the Senate, and 84 in the House, to override a veto.

The House, meanwhile, has not taken up a tax bill in several days while it waits to see what happens in the Senate.

Late last week, the House and Senate agreed to an unusual procedure by putting what was basically an empty shell of a tax bill into a conference committee, thus allowing a small group of lawmakers — the top two Republicans and one Democrat from each of the tax-writing committees — to negotiate a package that would be sent to the full chambers for straight up or down votes.

Reply 9 comments from Scott Quenette Beth Ennis Steve Jacob Alan Calvert Bob Forer Kris Norton William Weissbeck Floyd Craig Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Lawrence Freeman

Kansas Senate debating taxes late into night

Two days after Republican leaders in the Legislature said they didn't want lengthy debates over tax bills, with recorded roll call votes on one amendment after another, the Kansas Senate is working Sunday night doing just that.

On Friday, both the House and Senate voted to send a tax bill that was little more than an empty shell into a conference committee so that a small group of legislators from each chamber could negotiate various combinations of tax increases, put them into the shell bill, and send them to the full chambers for straight up or down votes.

Instead, the Senate is now allowing full debate on the floor about the bill, allowing individual senators to bring forth proposals in the form of amendments, to see which ones can get the 21 votes needed for passage.

But a large number of rank-and-file lawmakers from both sides of the aisle complained about that process, arguing that major tax policy deserves full debate by both chambers.

Lawmakers need to come up with roughly $400 million in new revenues to balance the budget they are proposing for next year, and even more than that if they want to build in a cushion in case revenues don't come in as expected.

Sunday marked the 101st day of the 2015 session, making it among the longest sessions in modern history. The next fiscal year begins July 1, the point at which the state will officially run out of spending authority if lawmakers don't pass a balanced budget.

Reply 4 comments from Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Carol Bowen Kate Rogge Lawrence Freeman

Take the House GOP tax preference survey

Struggling to find consensus within their own ranks about which taxes they're willing to raise to close the state's $400 million budget gap, Republican leaders in the Kansas House on Sunday resorted to a simple survey.

The survey, which is available below, lists a number of options that have been floated around so far this year, and it asks members to check which ones they could vote for.

Within minutes of handing it out during a caucus meeting, people following the Legislature on social media got the idea that maybe the public should be allowed to weigh in on it too. So, in the interest of full and open debate, we're posting the survey form on this page. You can also download a pdf version of it here, fill it out and send it to your legislator.

And while it may have been unintentional, the form also leaves plenty of room to write in your own suggestions.

A list of all the email addresses and office phone numbers of Kansas House members can be found here. And the Senators' contact info can be found here.

Kansas House Republicans' survey on tax policy preferences.

Kansas House Republicans' survey on tax policy preferences. by Peter Hancock

Reply 3 comments from Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Lynn Grant Jack Krebs

House tax bill has provision for half-cent sales tax in Douglas County

An omnibus tax bill awaiting action in the Kansas House includes a provision that would allow Douglas County to impose an additional half-cent sales tax to finance expansion of the county jail and a crisis intervention center.

But it is not yet certain that the House will even debate that bill, or whether it has enough support to pass. And even if it does pass the Legislature, county officials said they have not yet decided whether to use the additional taxing authority.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said that county commissioners have not yet decided whether how to finance those projects and that any financing mechanism would be put on a ballot for voter approval. But without additional sales tax authority, he said the county's only other option would be to pay for it through property taxes.

Normally, bills to give local jurisdictions additional sales tax authority are not controversial. They're considered "constituent bills," meaning they're important to one group of lawmakers' constituents, and they're passed as a matter of courtesy.

But this year the Douglas County provision, along with similar sales tax provisions for Bourbon and Thomas counties, were wrapped into a package of other tax measures needed to pull the state out of a $400 million budget hole.

The House had been expected to debate its tax package on Thursday. But Republican leaders abruptly pulled it from the calendar late Thursday without explanation.

It includes a combination of higher sales taxes and a temporary repeal of an income tax exemption granted in 2012 to more than 330,000 farmers and other business owners who receive nonwage pass-through income from their businesses.

A similar bill in the Senate, which did not include the local sales tax provisions, was defeated on the floor of the Senate Wednesday on a 30-1 vote.

Reply 2 comments from Craig Weinaug Steve Jacob

Lawmakers planning four-day weekend

Kansas lawmakers will go home Thursday afternoon for a four-day Memorial Day weekend, despite making no progress on resolving the state's $400 million-plus budget hole.

Thursday marks the 95th day of what was supposed to be a 90-day session. Both chambers plan to pass resolutions to formally adjourn for the next four days, so technically those days won't count as session days. Thus Tuesday, May 26, will be the 96th day.

The Kansas Senate does plan to debate a tax bill Thursday afternoon, but few people are saying it has any chance of passing. It would raise $496 million in new taxes, including a repeal of the tax exemption for nonwage business income. Business owners instead would receive a tax credit based on a percentage of their payroll.

The bill also contains increases in sales, cigarette and motor fuel taxes

The House Tax Committee so far has not produced a revenue plan. Earlier in the week, that panel rejected the idea of making any changes to the exemption on nonwage business income. It is now looking at raising sales taxes and imposing sales tax on construction projects by local governments, school districts and nonprofit organizations.

Reply 2 comments from Mel Wedermyer Lawrence Freeman

Senate panel advances $496 million tax package

The Kansas Senate tax committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would raise $496 million in new revenue next year, enough to dig the state out of its financial hole and leave a small but positive cash balance at the end of the year.

But the fate of the bill, which could reach the Senate floor as early as Tuesday afternoon, remains very much in doubt. Committee chairman Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said his goal was simply to get a bill to the floor so it can be debated and amended.

The committee voted 6-4 to send the bill to the full Senate without a recommendation that it be passed. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the panel, voted no. Also voting no was Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, whose district includes a portion of western Douglas County.

A key element of the bill would be to repeal one of the most controversial income tax cuts enacted in 2012, the exemption for nonwage "pass-through" income for more than 330,000 business owners. In its place, the bill would create a payroll tax credit so business owners could deduct a percentage of their employees' wages.

The pass-through exemption was billed as a way to spur new job creation. But many have argued that it has had little measurable impact on private-sector job growth.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Donovan would not concede that the tax exemption hadn't produced the results expected. But he has argued that the payroll tax credit would be another way to incentivize businesses to add jobs.

That provision of the bill is expected to generate almost $82 million next year.

The bill would also raise the state sales tax to 6.5 percent, an increase of 0.35 cents on the dollar, but it would lower the sales tax on food purchases to 5.9 percent. That is estimated to raise another $134 million.

It also includes a 50 cent per-pack increase in cigarette taxes and a 5 cent per-gallon increase in motor fuel taxes.

Reply 5 comments from Marc Wilborn James Howlette Cille_king John Sickels Lawrence Freeman Paul R.  Getto

Brownback giving few signals as 2015 session goes into overtime

On the 92nd day of what was supposed to be a 90-day legislative session, Gov. Sam Brownback is giving few signals, either to the public or to the Legislature, about how he wants to solve the state's $406 million budget hole.

Brownback answered questions after a bill-signing ceremony in his office. It was his first public appearance since the House on Friday rejected a plan to fill that hole mainly by increasing sales taxes. It's widely expected that another bill will be offered this week that would roll back some of the business tax cuts enacted in 2012, including the exemption for nonwage "pass-through" income for business owners.

That would be seen as at least a partial reversal of Brownback's signature tax and economic policy. But he had little to say when asked how much of a business tax increase, if any, he would accept — or what he has told legislators on that subject — other than to repeat his general philosophy about taxes.

"What I'm trying to do is move us off of the income tax and doing more on consumption-based taxes for the support of state government," he said. "That's a pro-growth position."

Brownback also brushed aside criticisms that he hasn't been more directly involved in trying to broker an agreement on taxes and the budget.

"I get involved as it’s useful to be involved in the process," he said. "These are separate bodies. These are separate branches. So I get involved as is helpful in the process."

"This is my fifth session," he added. "These things all kind of develop their own rhythm. At the end of the day, there will be a budget. It will balance. That’s the beauty of the place. That’s what I love so much about this versus the federal government. Because at the federal government, you don’t have to do a budget and it doesn’t ever balance."

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George Haley, one of first African Americans in Kansas Senate, dies

Former state Sen. George W. Haley, one of the first African Americans elected to the Kansas Senate and the father of current Sen. David Haley, died Wednesday at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 89.

George Haley was elected to the Senate in 1964 as a Republican from Kansas City and served one term. That same year, Democrat Curtis McClinton, of Wichita, also African American, was elected. But Haley was often referred to as the “first” black state senator because Wyandotte County reported its election returns that night before Sedgwick County. Also, his name was first alphabetically and his 11th District preceded McClinton’s 26th District numerically.

Haley was born Aug. 28, 1925, in Henning, Tenn. He served in the Air Force during World War II and later attended Morehouse College with classmate Martin Luther King Jr. He then became one of the first African Americans to earn a law degree from the University of Arkansas.

He moved to Wyandotte County and joined the law firm of Stevens, Jackson and Davis in Kansas City, Kan., a firm that provided legal assistance in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

After leaving the Senate in 1969, Haley served in six presidential administrations, beginning with Richard Nixon. His posts included a stint as U.S. ambassador to Gambia under President Bill Clinton.

That post was especially poignant since Haley’s brother, author Alex Haley, had written the bestselling book “Roots,” which became a blockbuster television miniseries 1977. The story traced the Haley family’s heritage back to Kuntah Kinteh who was brought to America as a slave from Gambia.

In February, the Senate passed a resolution honoring Haley and marking the 50th anniversary of his swearing-in. Only seven other African Americans have served in the Kansas Senate, including two who are currently serving: his son David, a Democrat from Kansas City, and Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita.

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Revenue Dept. finishes opening envelopes containing $129 million

The Kansas Department of Revenue said Monday it has finished opening the thousands of envelopes from people who filed their taxes by mail, and it is depositing about $129 million worth of checks from people who owed a balance on their tax return.

By comparison, legislative research officials said, the department was holding onto only $20 million worth of uncashed checks at this point last year.

The image of all that money sitting in stacks of unopened mail had been something of a sore spot for legislators who've been busy trying to figure out how to plug the state's estimated $422 million budget gap.

That small influx of money trims the estimated shortfall for next year down to about $406 million, researchers said.

Reply 1 comment from David Holroyd

Deal reached on moving elections

House and Senate negotiators have reached agreement on a bill that would move city and school board elections in Kansas to November of even-numbered years and keep them non-partisan.

Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, who led negotiations for the House, said most groups that had opposed earlier versions were either "on board" with the current bill, or at least had withdrawn their objections.

Notable exceptions, however, include the Kansas National Education Association and the Kansas Association of School Boards, which say the change will still cause logistical problems for schools. Besides moving elections from spring to November, the bill would also change the date when new terms begin, putting new school board members in place in the middle of a school year, just as boards are required by law to begin superintendent reviews and teacher contract talks.

Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball has expressed those concerns as well.

Kahrs said passage of the bill would have a "dramatic" effect on increasing voter turnout, which was a meager 14 percent in Douglas County in the April 2015 elections. With the change, he said, Kansas can expect to see turnout for those races jump to 30 percent or more.

Some groups had argued the bill was really an attempt to give conservatives a better shot at taking control of school boards and city councils. But Kahrs insisted that his motivation was increasing turnout, and that by leaving the elections non-partisan, it shouldn't have much of an impact on the ideological bent of local governments.

Two other election-related bills were added into the package: The so-called "Chad Taylor" bill proposed by Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach to prohibit people from withdrawing from the ballot unless they die before election day (the negotiated bill also allows for medical hardship); and a bill to repeal the law calling for a presidential preference primary in Kansas (parties could decide for themselves how to select delegates to their national conventions).

The conference committee report will go first to the Senate. Kahrs said he expects it will clear both chambers before the end of the week, and he thinks at least a few Democrats will vote for it.

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How tax bills are like ordering pizza

Most people have had the experience of being in a large group that suddenly decides to order out for pizza. The negotiating process can be excruciating. Put meat on the pizza and vegetarians in the group won't touch it. Don't include meat and a whole other faction says, "What's the point?" Everything you try picks up a few votes here, but loses some number of other votes over there.

The only difference between that and negotiating a tax bill is that, by and large, at least most people are at least in favor of the general concept of pizza.

Beyond that difference, though, that process is pretty similar to what the House Taxation Committee went through Monday when it narrowly advanced a bill that would partially — and I do mean partially — undo one of the more controversial income tax cuts passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012.

It has to do with the complete exemption from state taxes on so-called "pass-through" income. That's money derived from businesses that merely passes through as personal income for the owners. It applies to self-employed people who work out of their home. It also applies to many farms, partnerships such as law firms and medical practices, and certain types of corporations.

By agreeing to reimpose a very small tax of 2.7 percent on that income, which would be the lowest rate in the Kansas tax code, some Democrats on the panel begrudgingly agreed to endorse it. Ranking Democrat Rep. Tom Sawyer of Wichita said it was at least a start. And by itself it was something he could live with, although he would have preferred to see some additional controls, like a provision that applied the full tax rate to businesses that don't have any other employees besides the owner.

But by picking up some Democratic votes, conservatives said it would be a poison pill if that provision were included in any final tax package. GOP Reps. Marc Rhoades of Newton and Kasha Kelley of Arkansas City said they still think more cutting can be done on the spending side of the budget. They might be willing to look at some "consumption" taxes, i.e., sales tax. But with the income tax provision in the mix, they will be a solid "no" vote on any tax package.

Meanwhile back on the other side, Democrats and some moderate Republicans say a sales tax increase is just as much of a poison pill for them as an income tax hike is for the conservatives. They argue it falls disproportionately on the poor, who spend a higher percentage of their incomes on retail sales. Sawyer said the only way he would consider it would be if Republicans would agree to exempt food from the tax, which most Republicans won't do.

The trick for lawmakers as they near the 90th day of the session is to find some mix of pizza ingredients that will attract support from at least 50 percent plus one in each chamber ... and a signature from the governor.

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Lawmakers to hear about privatizing KPERS

Three committees of the Kansas Legislature will meet Wednesday to discuss the possibility of privatizing the state’s pension system.

That idea has been circulating among legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration at least since last fall when budget director Shawn Sullivan and Secretary of Administration Jim Clark presented it as an option during an interim meeting of the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits.

The Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, or KPERS, holds about $16 billion in assets. But its long-term “unfunded liability” — the difference between its assets and obligations already incurred — is estimated at $9.77 billion, according to KPERS spokeswoman Kristen Basso.

In April, though, Brownback signed a bill authorizing the state to issue $1.5 billion in pension obligation bonds. Once issued, proceeds of those bonds will be deposited into the KPERS fund and will slightly reduce its unfunded liability.

The process being discussed at that time was called “annuitization,” or selling off the pension system’s assets and liabilities to an outside company. Officials have not said how such a process might affect the retirement benefits of KPERS’ 289,000 active and retired members.

Wednesday’s meeting, scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon, will involve the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits.

Sen. Ty Masterson, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said the meeting will include presentations by four companies that offer annuitization services: Prudential Financial; Security Benefit Group; Fidelity Investments; and Dimensional Fund Advisors.

“We’re just looking at what some of the market options are,” Masterson said.

KPERS provides retirement benefits to most state employees outside the Regents university system, as well as school district, city, county and other local government employees. Officials for unions representing those workers said they see little benefit to privatizing the system.

“The bottom line is, the KPERS system is a good system. But it has been chronically underfunded,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “If you let someone else run it and you still underfund it, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, agreed.

“KPERS has had very strong performance over the last 30 years,” Proctor said. “KPERS also keeps its normal costs low. You would be hard pressed to find a private for-profit company that can do the job as cheaply and effectively as KPERS can.”

Reply 16 comments from James Howlette Merrill Charles L Bloss Jr Dorothy Hoyt-Reed William Weissbeck Steve Sharp Bob Reinsch Fred St. Aubyn Lawrence Freeman Lisa Crespin and 3 others

Kansas Speaker’s office announces staff changes

Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick announced Thursday that his former chief of staff, Christie Kriegshauser, is returning to that post after a stint as a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber.

Kriegshauser will replace Wade Hapgood, who announced he is taking a new job as vice-president of state government affairs for UnitedHealth Group Inc., one of the three companies that contracts to manage the Kansas Medicaid system known as KanCare.

Kriegshauser began working for Merrick in 2007 when he was House Majority Leader. She later worked as chief of staff to former House Speaker Mike O'Neal, who is now CEO of the Kansas Chamber. She remained in the speaker's office when Merrick was elected to that post in 2013, but moved to the Chamber to work again with O'Neal after the 2013 legislative session.

Reply 3 comments from Richard Quinlan Thomas Bryce Dorothy Hoyt-Reed

Stegall to recuse himself from ouster appeal

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall will recuse himself from a case to be heard Monday involving the ouster of a Prairie Village city councilman.

The court will hear the appeal Monday in the case of David Scott Morrison, who was ousted in October 2013 after a Johnson County judge found he had exercised "breathtakingly bad judgment" in allowing a homeless person to sleep in City Hall.

The Kansas Court of Appeals last year overturned Morrison's conviction and he was later reinstated in his seat. The appellate panel said the facts of the case did not, as a matter of law, meet the criteria under Kansas law for a judicial ouster.

Stegall was one of the three appellate court judges who heard that case. That decision was rendered just a few weeks before he was sworn in to a seat on the Supreme Court. Shawnee County Chief Judge Evelyn Z. Wilson will hear the case in his place.

An ouster is a formal legal proceeding in which a public official can be removed from office for willful misconduct in office, willful neglect to perform a legal duty, mental impairment, or criminal acts involving "moral turpitude."

The questions before the Supreme Court involve the appellate panel's definition of misconduct or neglect, whether Prairie Village's ethics code can result in an ouster, and whether the appellate court disregarded the standard of review in ouster cases.

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Kansas legislative wrap-up session starts off slow

Kansas lawmakers returned to Topeka Wednesday to begin wrapping up the 2015 session, but a casual observer might have a hard time noticing, given the lack of any visible action taking place.

The Senate met briefly in the morning and approved a handful of honorary resolutions, including one congratulating the Baldwin High School wrestling team for winning the 4A state title this year. The House is expected to have a similarly brief session in the afternoon.

The big issue hanging over the dome is the estimated $422 million budget gap the state is facing. Before lawmakers adjourned for their spring break, a conference committee had tentatively agreed to a $6.4 billion spending package for the upcoming fiscal year. But neither chamber has yet voted on that plan.

Now the question is what combination of spending cuts and tax increases they can agree to that will balance the budget and leave the state with a positive balance in its bank account at the end of the year.

But the budget conference committee currently has no meetings scheduled for the rest of this week. The Senate's tax committee is expected to meet Thursday, but only to consider a few minor bills. The House's tax committee has not yet scheduled a meeting.

Much of the negotiation appears to be going on behind closed doors as various legislators try to put together a tax package. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed raising alcohol and tobacco taxes, but most GOP legislators and virtually all Democrats oppose that idea.

Different groups of legislators are talking about different combinations of tax hikes — sales taxes, excise taxes and even scaling back some of the massive income tax cuts enacted a few years ago. But it is difficult to tell what combination it will take to garner the votes necessary to pass.

At this stage of the session, lawmakers often refer to the "magic numbers" of 63, 21 and one. For any package to become law, it takes 63 votes in the House, 21 votes in the Senate and the signature of one governor.

Reply 3 comments from Greg Cooper Amy Varoli Elliott William Weissbeck

Court denies Shawnee Mission’s motion to intervene in school finance case

A three-judge district court panel in Topeka on Monday denied a request by the Shawnee Mission school district to intervene in the ongoing school finance lawsuit.

But it continued to give the district limited permission to intervene in one aspect of the case that is still before the court, the question of whether certain kinds of funding are being distributed equitably among the state's 286 school districts.

The case, which was filed in 2010 and has already been reviewed once by the Kansas Supreme Court, challenges both the adequacy and equity of state funding for public education as a violation of the Kansas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to make "suitable provision for the finance" of public schools.

Shawnee Mission, a large suburban district in Johnson County with a relatively low poverty rate, was not one of the original plaintiffs in the case. The four main plaintiff districts are Kansas City, Wichita, Dodge City and Hutchinson, all of which have relatively high poverty rates and large numbers of students from non-English speaking households.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the equity portion of the suit and ordered the Legislature to increase the so-called "equalization" funding for districts' capital outlay and local option budgets. But it sent the larger question of overall adequacy of school funding back to the three-judge panel to be judged using a different standard.

Since then, though, several things have happened. The 2014 Legislature did increase equalization funding, and the panel initially said that was enough to satisfy the Supreme Court order. But the "fix" ended up costing the state more than anticipated, and when the state ran into more revenue problems in the fall, Gov. Sam Brownback ordered allotment cuts in the base funding for public schools.

Those allotment cuts had a ripple effect that also disrupted the equalization formulas, prompting the plaintiffs to file a motion in January to reopen the equity portion of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs asked, among other things, for an order to suspend operation of the entire local option budget law until the equity problems are fixed. A hearing on that motion, where Shawnee Mission has limited permission to intervene, is set for May 7.

In its motion to intervene, Shawnee Mission argued that it receives less money per-pupil than any of the plaintiff districts, and that its interests were not being adequately represented by either the plaintiffs or the Attorney General's office, which is representing the state.

But in its order Monday, the three-judge panel said there was nothing Shawnee Mission could add to the case that it couldn't add with a simple "friend of the court" brief.

"It is far past time in this case, and this Court presents no forum at this point, to adjudicate anew the inequitable features, subject of remedy, affirmed to exist in Gannon," the panel wrote.

More recently, however, Kansas lawmakers have passed, and Gov. Brownback has signed into law, a bill that completely repeals the entire school finance formula and replaces it for the next two years with a system of block grants.

Plaintiffs in the case are now asking the district court to declare that law unconstitutional. The panel so far has not set out a schedule for ruling on that motion, but an initial hearing could also take place at the May 7 hearing.

Reply 1 comment from Devin Wilson

Block grant bill becomes law; all eyes now on court

Senate Bill 7, the controversial legislation that repeals the old school finance formula and replaces it for two years with a system of block grants to school districts, officially became law Thursday when it was published in the Kansas Register.

For the time being, at least, school districts will immediately start to be funded under a different formula. Some, including the Lawrence school district, will start receiving less money than they had expected when they adopted their budgets last August. But it remains to be seen how long state courts will allow that to continue.

Soon after the bill passed both chambers, plaintiffs in the long-running school finance lawsuit filed a motion with the district court panel hearing the case, asking for a temporary order to block it from being implemented. They also asked the court to hear evidence at the next scheduled hearing May 7 to decide whether the law should be permanently enjoined.

The court has not yet acted on that motion. John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email Thursday that he is waiting just like everyone else to hear something from the court.

Reply 1 comment from Dreber

Budget deal may have to wait as lawmakers prepare to go home

Kansas lawmakers are preparing to wind up the regular session today and are likely to leave without voting on the budget deal that House and Senate negotiators struck Wednesday.

There are several procedural reasons for that, but it boils down to the fact that the two Democrats on the negotiating teams have refused to sign off on the report. That means the House has to take another procedural step known as a motion to "agree to disagree," and Republican leaders aren't sure how a vote on that would turn out.

Democrats say they won't sign off on the budget deal because they think it's unsustainable. It relies on sweeping millions of dollars out of the state highway fund to pay for general fund expenses. And it's predicated on the assumption that lawmakers will pass a number of tax measures the governor has asked for, even though there is substantial doubt that the conservative-dominated Legislature will do any such thing.

Some Democrats also objected to the targeted cuts the Senate had proposed to Kansas University and Kansas State University, along with the reallocation of student financial aid money to students at private institutions. But the conference committee restored the KU and K-State money the Senate had cut and agreed to a less drastic reallocation of financial aid in favor of private school students.

The budget deal was worked out Wednesday by a conference committee made up of the chairman, vice chairman and ranking Democrat from the House and Senate budget-writing committees.

Rules of the Legislature say a conference committee report has to be signed by all six members of the panel. And in most cases, the minority party members will sign the report, even if they don't intend to vote for it. Withholding signatures is seen as a statement of strong protest.

When that happens, the full House and full Senate have to approve an "agree-to-disagree" motion, which sends the report back to the conference committee so it can come out with only four signatures.

The Senate ran its motion Wednesday, but the House did not. And there is concern in the House that enough conservatives don't like the bill that they won't vote for the motion because they, too, don't like the idea that it requires tax increases to be passed later.

If the House adjourns before voting on the measure, the entire budget issue will have to wait until April 29, when lawmakers return for the wrap-up session. By then, they will have new, updated revenue estimates for the next fiscal year showing more closely just how much of a gap there is between desired spending and expected revenue.

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Higher education at focus of budget negotiations

Higher education funding seems to be one of the key sticking points in ongoing budget talks between the Kansas House and Senate, and it's not yet clear whether the two chambers will reach an agreement before adjourning Thursday or Friday for the Legislature's annual spring break.

So far, the Senate is the only chamber that has passed a budget bill. It includes, among other things, a $9.4 million cut in general operating funds for Kansas University over the next two years, and a $2.1 million cut to Kansas State University in the upcoming fiscal year.

Also, the Senate included a proviso that says out of the $15.7 million available for need-based student financial aid, 75 percent will be reserved for students attending private, independent colleges and universities.

House negotiators so far are not going along with the cuts to KU and K-State. But Wednesday morning they offered a compromise on financial aid, suggesting that 60 percent be reserved for students at private schools.

The House is negotiating based on the bill reported out of its Appropriations Committee, but Republican leaders have not put that bill on the floor of the House for full debate and a vote.

Republican leaders in the House have admitted that they may not be able to muster the 63 votes needed for passage. But Democrats have suggested that GOP leaders don't want a floor debate where amendments could be offered out of fear that an amendment to authorize expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act might pass.

The chambers are able to meet in conference committee anyway because the Senate put the contents of its budget bill into a House bill, which technically makes it a change to the original House bill.

If negotiators for the two chambers are able to agree on a package, it will go back to the full chambers for a straight up-or-down vote, with no opportunity for further amendments.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn Thursday or Friday for about three and a half weeks. During that time, budget officials will release new consensus revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. Then the Legislature will return April 29 for a final wrap-up session to pass what is known as the "omnibus" budget bill, which must be balanced with those new revenue figures.

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Strange debate leads to passage of exotic animals bill

Unless you were one of the people listening to the Legislature online Thursday night, you probably have no idea how many members of the Kansas Senate have, at some point in their life, been kicked or beaten on various parts of their bodies by barnyard animals, or been viciously scratched by flying cats.

Furthermore, unless you were listening in, you might be asking yourself why on earth anyone on Earth would ever need, or even want, to know such information. So it was probably just as well that the Senate waited until around 9 p.m. — when everyone else, including the Journal-World's copy desk, was waiting for their final votes on bills dealing with local elections and teachers contracts — to take up debate on S.B. 97, a bill "relating to contact with dangerous regulated animals."

Ostensibly, the bill would amend laws put in place in 2006 after a Kansas high school student was killed by a tiger while posing for her senior pictures. That law basically prohibits anyone except USDA-licensed facilities from owning or possessing wild, exotic and dangerous animals. It also prohibits them from letting the general public handle such animals.

S.B. 97 would remove cheetahs and clouded leopards from the dangerous animal list. It came at the request of Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, a privately owned zoo whose owners want to put on educational programs in which school children could handle baby cheetahs and leopards. The bill would allow "full contact" with animals weighing less than 25 pounds, and more restricted contact with animals weighing 25-40 pounds.

Here, it's probably important to point out that Statehouse reporters spend a lot of time cooped up in the Statehouse where we don't always see what's happening on the cable news networks. So we didn't immediately get the joke when one of our former colleagues tweeted, "But can we chase llamas?"

Needless to say, there were many in the Senate who saw this as a thoroughly bad idea, including Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, whose constituents include the mother of the high school girl killed in 2006.

But it soon became a vehicle for every member of the Senate to tell his or her own personal story about rough dealings with animals, including Republican Steve Abrams, a veterinarian from Arkansas City, who told of having live cats hurled at him. Details of that story probably aren't necessary, but suffice it to say, even tiny kittens have sharp claws.

Some of us waited to see if Abrams would offer an amendment to require licenses for people to carry concealed cats. Instead, he offered an amendment to require anyone wanting to handle such animals to sign a statement saying they understand the inherent risk, although he insisted such a statement would not constitute a legal waiver. It passed on a voice vote. And along the way, he told more mortifying stories of being kicked, bucked and prodded by much larger and stronger livestock.

That quickly set off a chain reaction in which many in the chamber had to tell their own personal traumas with animals, most of which seemed wholly unrelated to the legislation at hand. And there seemed to be little relation between the seriousness of their encounters with their support or opposition to the bill. And to answer your question, no, we couldn't tell if their support or opposition correlated to their ability to identify the color of #TheDress.

Essentially, the Senate was divided between two camps: those who think it's less than rational to pass laws permitting children to freely handle wild cheetahs and leopards, regardless of the cats' size; and those who think all life is inherently dangerous and, thus, it's futile for government to try to shield them.

After an hour and 22 minutes of debate, the bill passed, 23-17. It now goes to the House.

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