Entries from blogs tagged with “Kansas government”
The Kansas House worked through a handful of mostly noncontroversial bills Monday, giving a few freshman legislators a chance to learn some of the ropes.
Whenever a bill comes out of committee, someone from that committee is assigned the task of "carrying" the bill onto the floor. That means he or she gets up to the podium, explains the details of the bill, stands for questions and responds to arguments against its passage.
For major bills, that task usually falls to the committee chairman or vice chairman, or the person on the panel with the most knowledge of the subject.
But the bills worked on the floor of the House Monday didn't involve subjects that were terribly controversial, and so as a form of initiation into the legislative process, a few freshmen were given that task, and the opportunity to gain a little experience.
The one that proved most controversial was a bill dealing with elections and advance balloting. Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, had personally pushed for the bill, which would ensure that if someone mails in an advance ballot before Election Day, but it doesn't arrive at the county election office until after the deadline, it will still be counted in the final canvass.
Miller actually served in the Legislature during the 1980s, during Democratic Gov. John Carlin's administration, but he freely admitted he couldn't remember the last time he'd carried a bill on the floor.
The debate became complicated when Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, offered an amendment that would also allow people to drop off their advance ballot at a polling place on Election Day. Although many advance voters try to do that, he said, it's technically not allowed because advance ballots are supposed to be at the county office before polls close at 7 p.m., and poll workers don't return in-person ballots until after that time.
Parker's amendment passed, 67-57, but other lawmakers said afterward that it would have to be cleaned up in the Senate because the amendment doesn't specify whether the ballot can be dropped off at the voter's own polling place or any other polling place in the county, or even the state.
Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita, carried a bill authorizing the formation of "public benefit corporations" in Kansas. Those are corporations that include, as part of their overall business plan, a commitment to providing some social or environmental benefit. It would have the effect of shielding those corporations from shareholder lawsuits if they pursue activities that do not maximize profits or stock value.
Examples, she said, include Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Toms Shoes and the outdoor clothing maker Patagonia.
"Can you tell?" Bishop asked, when another lawmaker asked if it was her first time carrying a bill.
"Would you like any amendments to the bill?" asked Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, another freshman House member. "I'd rather not," Bishop replied. "OK then, never mind," Cox said.
Rep. Eric Smith, R-Burlington, carried a bill giving county commissions more autonomy in setting their own meeting dates. And Rep. KC Ohaebosim (pronounced "o-HA-bo-sim"), D-Wichita, carried a bill clarifying that bicyclists need to have a rear reflector or a rear light on their bicycles, but not both, when riding at night.
Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, who is actually in his second term in the House, carried a bill allowing water districts to register their official vehicles once every five years, instead of every year, which is how the state treats vehicles from city or county utility departments.
All of the bills advanced toward final action on uncontested voice votes. Final votes are scheduled for Tuesday.
Kansas lawmakers have a big question hanging over their heads as they head toward the midpoint of the session, known as "turnaround" day. The question is, what will Gov. Sam Brownback do with the $1 billion tax bill they just sent him that would reverse many of the signature tax cuts he championed in 2012?
So far, Brownback has said only that he won't sign the bill into law, but that leaves two other options: vetoing the bill, or letting it become law without his signature.
The bill came close to getting the two-thirds majority needed on a preliminary vote in the House on Wednesday last week, but a number of those peeled off on final action the next day, when it passed, 76-48. It takes 84 votes in the House to override a veto.
Still, there is some belief in the House that it could pick up votes on a veto override, if only because House members are ready to move on to other issues — passing a new school finance formula being chief among them — and they don't want to take any more tax-increasing votes than they absolutely have to.
It's a different story on the Senate side where the tax bill only got 22 votes — one more than the minimum needed for passage, but five short of the two-thirds needed for a veto override. Some of those yes votes came with a good deal of reluctance, and a veto could be seen as an opportunity to go back to the bargaining table and work something out with the governor's office.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, however, has laid down a challenge. If Brownback does opt to veto the bill, the onus will be on him to come up with a budget plan for the next two years that doesn't rely on delayed payments to schools or the state pension system, or other kinds of one-time money. And with a looming Kansas Supreme Court decision on school finance hanging over everyone's heads, cutting K-12 education — which is half the state budget — is probably off the table as well.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when, or even if, Brownback will have to concede that one of the hallmarks of his tax policy cannot be salvaged in this environment. That's the so-called LLC "loophole" that allows more than 330,000 farmers and business owners to pay no state income tax at all on their nonwage business income.
That costs the state treasury an estimated $230 million a year by itself, a sizeable sum to be sure, but far short of what is needed to balance the state's budget over the next two years without significant spending cuts.
The tax bill was just passed by the Senate on Friday, and it usually takes at least a few days for the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate to produce the official copy that goes to the governor, with signatures from the House Speaker and Senate President. Once it lands on his desk, the clock starts ticking and Brownback will have 10 days to make a decision one way or the other.
In the meantime, lawmakers will not be sitting idly by waiting for that decision. Monday starts the beginning of "turnaround week," when the House and Senate spend the majority of their time working bills on the floor of each chamber until Thursday, which is the deadline for each chamber to pass most of their own bills.
That deadline applies to all bills except those that have been in an "exempt" committee, which are mainly the budget and tax committees, and Federal and State Affairs.
There is a process that each chamber's leadership uses to get around that deadline known as the "blessing" of bills that are high priority, but which still need more time. It's the kind of process that usually makes people's eyes glaze over when it's explained, but it involves removing a bill from a committee and referring it to an exempt committee for a day or so, then referring it back to the original committee. Once a bill has touched an exempt committee, even if only for a few hours, it's considered "blessed" and therefore exempt from the deadline.
The order in which bills come up for debate on the calendar is entirely at the discretion of leadership, so it's nearly impossible to know more than a day in advance which bills are coming up.
On Monday, though, the House takes up a few interesting bills, including one creating a new business category known as "public benefit corporations," which are for-profit businesses that include as part of their business plans some kind of public benefit, such as environmental sustainability or some kind of social justice issue. Presumably, that could shield such businesses from shareholder lawsuits if they pursue activities that aren't necessarily in line with maximizing stock value.
Another bill dealing with bicycle safety could generate some debate. It would require cyclists riding at night to have either a red reflector that's visible from a certain distance or a red lamp that is also visible from a distance. Current law requires both, as well as a front light. Law enforcement officials have expressed concern that when a cyclist who has only one rear device gets struck by a vehicle from behind, the vehicle driver can use as a defense the fact that the cyclist wasn't in compliance with the two-device law.
Another bill would clarify a procedure about advance voting to make sure that a ballot would still be counted if it is mailed and postmarked before Election Day but doesn't arrive at the county election office until after polls closed. Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said that has been an issue in many counties, including Shawnee County which recently lost its central mail distribution center. As a result of that, mail sent and received within the city could take a number of days to arrive because it is now routed through Kansas City, Mo., for processing.
The Senate's debate calendar for Monday was not officially posted as of Sunday afternoon.
Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate announced their plans for debating tax bills the rest of this week, and one scenario could put the just-passed House plan on Gov. Sam Brownback's desk early next week.
That, however, depends on what happens Thursday morning in the House when it votes on final passage of its plan, which would raise income taxes to the tune of just over $1 billion over the next two years. The House advanced that bill to final action on a surprising 83-39 vote, and if it picks up another one or two votes on Thursday, that would put it over the two-thirds majority threshold for overriding an almost-certain governor's veto.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, announced on the Senate floor Wednesday that, assuming the House passes its bill, the Senate will send it straight to the floor for debate on Friday, bypassing the normal process of holding on to the bill while the Senate sends its own bill over to the House.
Should the Senate pass the House bill without any changes — which would be highly unusual — that would send the bill directly to the governor's desk.
Before any of that happens, however, the Senate plans to take up what has come to be known as the Senate Democrats plan on Thursday. That bill would raise an estimated $1.2 billion over the next two years.
And in another unusual move, Democratic Sen. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, the ranking minority member on the Senate tax committee, will be the one who carries the bill on the floor, meaning he will explain its contents and answer questions from other senators.
Holland acknowledged that it's unusual for a member of the minority party to carry such a major piece of legislation on the floor. But given the fact that the bill has been dubbed "the Democrats bill," he thought it was probably fitting.
It wasn't entirely clear what the strategy was behind putting two tax bills on the debate calendar back to back, or what the implications would be if both bills pass. But Denning said he sees nothing wrong with doing that.
"You know, everybody's been talking about tax policy for four years," he said. "We're all comfortable with the bill; we know what's in it. Everybody's ready to have the debate. We're getting close to Turnaround, so the most efficient day to do that is if (House Bill) 2178 gets out of the House, just bring it to the Committee of the Whole and save us a couple of days."
Turnaround Day, which is Thursday, Feb. 23, is the traditional midpoint of the session and the deadline for most nontax and nonspending bills to pass out of their chamber of origin.
Both the House and Senate Democrats bills would eliminate the so-called LLC loophole on pass-through business income, and both would reinstate a third, higher tax bracket on top of the existing two. The main difference is that under the Senate Democrats plan, that higher bracket would kick in earlier: anything over $35,000 a year for individuals, or $70,000 a year for couples filing jointly. The threshold in the House plan is $50,000 for single filers and $100,000 for couples filing jointly.
Also, the Senate Democrats would keep rates for the bottom two tax brackets the same: 2.7 percent for the bottom bracket and 4.6 percent for the middle bracket. But for the upper bracket, the rate would go to 6.45 percent.
Under the House plan, rates for the middle bracket would increase to 5.25 percent, and the upper bracket rate would go to 5.45 percent.
Details of Bernie Sanders event
The Kansas Democratic Party confirmed this week that former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders will speak in Topeka at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, in the Topeka High School gymnasium. But they implore people who want tickets to the event not to call the high school. Tickets are available through the Democratic Party's website.
Sanders will be the keynote speaker at the state party's annual Washington Days convention being held that weekend. The convention itself will be at the Downtown Ramada Inn in Topeka.
Sanders finished a close second for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he won the Kansas Democratic caucuses in March by more than a three-to-one margin.
In the U.S. Senate, he is listed as an independent from Vermont because he was not officially a member of the Vermont Democratic Party when he was last elected. Sanders refers to himself as a Democratic Socialist.
Since the election he has been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump's policies on immigration, financial regulation and other issues.
Following a near-meltdown in the Senate last week, Republican leaders in the Kansas House plan to move forward with their own plans for balancing this year's budget and raising taxes to balance the next two years' budgets.
On Thursday last week, the Senate abruptly called off debate on its own tax and spending plan after support for the spending cuts collapsed over the previous 24 hours. Among other things, that bill would have slashed $198 million in general fund spending out of the last four or five months of the fiscal year. The bulk of that, $129 million, would have come out of K-12 education.
The Senate tax plan, which was more or less paired with the spending cuts, would have raised about $660 million for the next two years by repealing the so-called LLC exemption that was part of the 2012 tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback championed, and by raising individual tax rates on everyone.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, told reporters Friday that he planned to meet over the weekend with GOP leaders and other members to decide how they want to proceed on the budget and taxes.
On the table is a House tax bill that would raise just more than $1 billion in new revenue for the next two fiscal years by eliminating the LLC exemption, raising individual rates and reinstating a third tax bracket for individuals earning more than $50,000 a year, or couples filing jointly earning more than $100,000 a year.
The House hasn't yet produced a spending-cut bill — formally known as a "rescission" bill because it would rescind spending authority previously approved — but Ryckman said the Appropriations Committee planned to work on that Monday and Tuesday.
During an informal Q & A with reporters after the House adjourned Friday, Ryckman was asked where the line is, if there is one, between an acceptable and unacceptable cut to public schools.
"We’re still having talks and conversations about where that is," he said. "We’re trying to balance any decision with what it will look like to each individual district based on their individual data so there’s not disruption in services."
One interesting difference between the House and Senate approaches is how willing GOP leaders are in each chamber to work with Brownback.
When Brownback rolled out his plan in January — which called for delaying payments to public schools and KPERS, and borrowing $317 million from an idle funds investment account — Senate President Susan Wagle was quick to criticize it for relying too heavily on one-time money and failing to address the "structural deficit" in the state's budget: the gap between regular, recurring revenues coming in and regular recurring expenses being paid out.
Likewise, Brownback wasted little time lashing out at the Senate's tax plan, saying the higher rates would "punish the middle class," while repeal of the LLC exemption "needlessly harms the real people that serve as the lifeblood of Kansas."
Since then, some in the Senate have said leaders need to stop thinking about a plan that can get the minimum 21 votes needed for passage, but instead finding a plan that can get the 27 needed to override an almost certain governor's veto.
Ryckman, by contrast, said that probably is not a workable strategy in the 125-member House, where it takes 63 votes to pass a bill and 84 to override a veto.
"What we’ve talked about all session is, it’s not just about finding 63 (yes votes)," he said. "It’s also about finding something the governor will sign. This is part of the process.
"Anytime you’re talking about revenue enhancements, to get to 63 votes, it's very problematic. To get to 84, it’s almost impossible," Ryckman said.
Meanwhile in the Senate, GOP leaders have said they will not let any bills move forward until the chamber comes to a consensus about how to balance this year's budget and how to move forward on taxes. And as far as taxes are concerned, Wagle said, the only element that seems to have 21 votes so far is repeal of the LLC exemption, which would only raise about $230 million a year, far less than what's needed to close the projected $582 million budget gap for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.
Given that, she said, she has instructed the Ways and Means Committee to start putting together a budget for the next two fiscal years that would make enough cuts to close that gap.
Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have said they are working with a group of moderate Republicans on an alternative plan that could be discussed in committees sometime this week. Democrats say it would raise about $1.2 billion over the next two years through a combination of repealing the LLC exemption, raising rates, and establishing a third tax bracket that would kick in at $35,000 a year for individuals, or $70,000 a year for married couples filing jointly.
It's worth noting, though, that both the Senate Democrats' plan and the House proposal go much further in raising taxes than the original Senate plan that Brownback criticized so harshly when it first came out of committee.
Ryckman said he has been meeting with Brownback, most recently on Tuesday of last week, to discuss tax policy. So far, he said, the governor has not drawn any lines in the sand about what he absolutely will not accept.
"We're just talking about finding things we can agree on," Ryckman said.
Kansas Democratic Party officials finally confirmed Tuesday what many people had been saying unofficially on social media for days, that former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders will be the keynote speaker at the party's upcoming state convention known as Washington Days in Topeka.
Sanders is scheduled to speak sometime on Saturday, Feb. 25, but the exact time and location have not yet been determined. The convention will be held at the Downtown Ramada Inn, but an official with the party said the Sanders event will be held at another location in Topeka.
"We're incredibly excited to have Sen. Sanders as our keynote speaker for this year's Washington Days convention," state party executive director Kerry Gooch said in a statement. "He had so much support from Kansas, and we're grateful that he's coming here just for us. He's a true inspiration for so many — and we believe he will see an amazing reception from the people of Kansas."
Sanders, I-Vt., won the Kansas Democratic presidential caucuses by more than a three-to-one margin over Hillary Clinton but failed to win the party's nomination. He held a rally in Lawrence that drew an estimated 4,200 people two days before the caucuses.
The state party convention is typically held sometime around Presidents Day, which is Feb. 20 this year. The major items of business are meetings of the congressional district and state committees. It also serves as a fundraising event and an opportunity for potential candidates to make announcements and start lining up support for the 2018 elections.
The two major fundraising events are an auction on Friday night and a banquet on Saturday that typically features a high-profile keynote speaker, often someone with presidential ambitions. In 2015, the keynote speaker was former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who also ran for the presidential nomination in 2016 but bowed out of the race after the Iowa caucuses. In 2008, the keynote speaker was Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who became Clinton's vice presidential running mate in 2016.
This year, though, party officials said they will not hold a banquet and instead will host Sanders' speech as the main event, in a venue that is still to be determined.
Kansas’ strict voting laws sometimes act like a poll tax and also disproportionately discourage young voters, a civil rights panel alleges in a draft report that seeks a federal probe into Kansas voting laws.
A panel that advises the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is circulating a draft report that would ask that agency to call for a Justice Department review of Kansas' strict voting rights laws to determine whether the state is in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and other laws.
"Kansas’ proof of citizenship and voter ID requirements under the (Secure and Fair Elections, or) SAFE Act are the strictest in the nation, and may impose a substantially higher burden than that which has been previously challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court," the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in its draft report. "Community groups, local elections officials, and individual citizens all reported struggling to comply with the requirements."
The draft report came out one day before a Kansas Senate committee hears testimony on a bill that would expand the law even further by giving Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office authority to hold "bifurcated" elections in which some voters would only be allowed to vote in federal elections, but not state or local elections, if they register to vote using a federal form that does not require proof of citizenship.
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Kobach said asking for a Justice Department review would be unnecessary because the law is already under review in federal court.
"That seems to be a bit redundant to me since the ACLU has already thrown every argument including the kitchen sink at the Kansas SAFE Act, so the legal questions are already being reviewed in federal court," he said.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 3 in a case seeking to declare the proof of citizenship law unconstitutional.
The advisory panel conducted hearings in January 2016 and heard testimony about the impact that the SAFE Act has had on voting rights and voter participation in Kansas. Kobach, who championed passage of that law in 2011, testified at those hearings and said he did not think the laws had had any negative impact on voter participation. But others said the law, and in particular the requirement that people show documentary proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register, had made it much more difficult for people to vote.
The draft report is being circulated to people who submitted testimony or who had expressed interest in being updated on the committee's proceedings. The panel is now taking feedback and suggested changes before issuing its final report. The next meeting of the committee will be by teleconference on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
In its draft report, however, the advisory committee suggests a number of problems with the law and how it has been implemented since it took effect in 2013.
It notes, for example, that people seeking identification documents are supposed to be able to receive them for free from from state agencies. "However, in practice, a number of eligible citizens may be required to pay for their documents. Any such instances may effectively be compared to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional under both the 14th and 24th Amendments."
It also suggests that young voters are disproportionately affected because it only applies to voters who first register in their county after the law took effect in 2013.
And it notes that there have been cases in which voters' information has been lost as it is transferred between agencies such as the Division of Vehicles and county election offices, adding, "Such data loss has resulted in citizens facing requests to submit the same identification documents multiple times, creating confusion and deterring eventual voter participation."
It also suggests that, "Improper or insufficient training of poll workers has resulted in eligible voters being turned away because the poll workers were unaware that the identification provided is in fact considered 'acceptable' under the SAFE Act requirements."
In a telephone interview Monday, Kobach disputed those findings and pointed to a survey his office commissioned, which was submitted as evidence in the federal lawsuit, finding that 77 percent of those surveyed support the proof of citizenship law while only 14 percent opposed the requirement and 9 percent had no opinion.
"The other thing I would say about the report is it is very lopsided," Kobach said. It includes testimony almost entirely from left-wing opponents of proof of citizenship, and I find that problematic when nearly 80 percent of Kansans support the proof of citizenship requirement in scientific surveys."
At least one of two bills that would partially roll back a mandate to allow concealed weapons in most public buildings is likely to come up for a vote Wednesday in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.
Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs that committee, told the Journal-World Friday that he plans to consider amendments and possibly vote on one of the bills Wednesday, but he had not yet decided which one.
The first bill, which is considered to have the least chance of passing out of committee, would give a permanent exemption for public college and university campuses, public hospitals and mental health centers as well as other buildings owned by local governments.
A hearing on that bill Wednesday drew a large crowd of people testifying in favor of it. But it is believed there are not enough votes on the committee for it to pass.
The second bill, requested by the University of Kansas hospital, would exempt only the hospital facilities within a defined district in Kansas City, Kan.
That bill is thought to have a better chance of passing out of committee, but it will likely be subject to amendment. Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, a supporter of the concealed-carry law, indicated during a hearing Thursday he would be more amenable to it if the exemption is strictly limited to health care facilities in the complex, not to any residential or other type of buildings that he speculated might be developed in the future like a hotel, restaurant or apartment building.
Unless the Legislature acts this year, the four-year exemption that most public facilities received in 2013 will expire July 1.
Others on the committee, though, have said they might want to broaden the bill to include all publicly-owned health care facilities such as hospitals, clinics and community mental health centers.
Even if the bills fail in the committee, supporters of them have said they will look for opportunities to offer them as amendments to other bills that deal with related topics.
Kansas U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have both expressed support for Betsy DeVos, President Trump's pick for education secretary, despite widespread opposition and concern from the Kansas education community.
DeVos, who is married to billionaire Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune, is widely known as a champion of voucher programs, charter schools and other kinds of "school choice" programs. The two are also known as major contributors to Republican congressional campaigns.
Several Senate Democrats have pointed out that DeVos owes an estimated $5.3 million in fines and late fees to the Ohio Election Commission for violations of that state's campaign finance laws committed by a now-defunct political action committee she headed, the All Children Matter PAC. Those senators have said she should pay off those fines before she is confirmed as education secretary.
DeVos went through a rocky confirmation hearing Jan. 17 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Roberts serves on. During that hearing, she appeared confused about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and at one point said states should have the right to decide whether to enforce it, despite the fact that it is a federal civil rights law.
She also would not commit to the idea that if charter schools and private schools receive public money that they should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.
And she was widely criticized nationally for her statements that it should be up to states to decide whether guns should be allowed in schools, mentioning that some locations might need guns for protection against grizzly bears.
In statements released earlier this week, though, Roberts and Moran said that in private meetings with them, DeVos eased their concerns.
"She gave me her commitment that she will fully enforce and implement the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act," Roberts said in a statement released Tuesday.
In a separate statement Wednesday, Moran said: "Ms. DeVos confirmed to me that there will be no federally mandated voucher program in the state of Kansas. She assured me that the state, local districts and school boards will retain their important role in administering our school and determining our students' curriculum."
Moran went on to say that DeVos had vowed to to pursue full funding for IDEA and that "she agrees that we must return control over our students' education to the state and local levels by implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended."
The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is the latest renewal of the 1960s-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which directs federal funding for public schools. The previous version of the law was known as No Child Left Behind.
Those statements, however, did not satisfy many education leaders in Kansas.
"Completely unqualified," said Mark Desetti, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "Her entire adult life has been about dismantling public education and destroying it."
"This would be like taking the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and making him the secretary of agriculture overseeing ranching and livestock," he added.
Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that organization does not take positions on individuals who are nominated for jobs, but he said many school board members in Kansas have expressed grave concerns about DeVos.
"We have always had concerns about the role of private schools being publicly supported and what that means, the issue of charter schools, so we have concerns about her policies," Tallman said.
Both Desetti and Tallman said the mere fact that DeVos has promised not to "mandate" charter schools — privately operated schools that receive public funding — does not mean that she won't pursue policies that could pressure states into accepting them.
"One of the things that has been talked about, though, is federal programs that would either encourage or reward if you did, or penalize if you didn't," Tallman said."You don't have to do these types of programs, but you're not going to get any federal money if you don't. That's another area of concern."
Likewise, the Kansas PTA does not take positions on nominations, but it posted a statement on its website urging PTA members to share the group's policy positions on key issues, including: "The PTA opposes any private school choice system — vouchers, tax credits or deductions — that would divert public school resources."
The Senate is scheduled to take a cloture vote Friday to end a Democratic filibuster of her confirmation. A final vote is expected Monday.
So far, two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they will oppose DeVos' confirmation. If all Democrats and independents vote no as well, that would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate, leaving Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.
A number of Kansas public officials and advocacy groups weighed in Wednesday on President Donald Trump's nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. And as one might expect, their reactions fell along partisan and ideological lines.
"Judge Gorsuch is a mainstream, respected judge who has served on the bench next door in Colorado for a decade," said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who will vote on Gorsuch's confirmation. “It is important for Kansans to know that he is a strict Constitutionalist and will not legislate from the bench. We have seen too many critical rulings of late that have ignored the separation of powers and have turned our courts into a super-legislature. Judge Gorsuch will not contribute to this disturbing trend."
Kansas Democrats, on the other hand, were not so complimentary.
“The Kansas Democratic Party hopes to see the same consideration for Mr. Gorsuch as the Republicans in the Senate have given to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, the Honorable Merrick Garland," said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "Those Republicans entirely ignored the nomination, openly refusing to give Mr. Garland even a hearing, let alone a vote. It would be hypocrisy on the side of the Senate Republicans to demand Senate Democrats vote for confirmation in a quick and quiet manner."
Gorsuch, a native of Colorado who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, was named to the 10th Circuit appellate bench by President George W. Bush in 2006.
One significant case from Kansas in which he participated was a school finance case, Patrella v. Brownback, in which a group of parents in the Shawnee Mission school district sued in federal court, claiming the state's cap on the authority of school districts to levy local option budgets violated a number of rights under the U.S. Constitution.
In one of the appeals involved in that case, a three-judge panel that included Gorsuch ruled in 2012 that the parents did have standing to sue. But the case was later dismissed on its merits by another three-judge panel in 2015.
Gov. Sam Brownback, who was the named defendant in that case, issued a statement praising Gorsuch.
"President Trump made good on his most important campaign promise, to fill Justice (Antonin) Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court with someone with impeccable credentials who will defend the Constitution with vigor and integrity," Brownback said. "Judge Gorsuch is an excellent jurist, more than qualified, and has demonstrated great respect for the rule of law."
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has challenged a number of federal regulations issued during Democrat Barack Obama's administration in cases that have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, also said he has high hopes for Gorsuch.
“We know him as a solid, capable jurist,” Schmidt said. “It will be good for Kansas and the Midwest to have a voice from the central part of the country on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jerry Moran had not issued a public statement. But he posted comments on Twitter calling Gorsuch, "an impressive & well-qualified #SCOTUS nominee who has already received bipartisan support in the Senate."
Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, whose district includes Lawrence, also took to Twitter to comment on Gorsuch, calling him "an ardent defender of the U.S. Constitution and a great legal mind."
Gorsuch also received praise from the Kansas Republican Party and the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, a lobby group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and supports "religious freedom" legislation that allows private businesses and government officials to deny service to certain individuals based on religious faith.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins on Friday explained the timing of her retirement announcement this week, saying she was under pressure from other Republicans to make a decision so they could get started on their own 2018 campaign plans.
Speaking briefly with reporters at the Statehouse Friday, Jenkins said she was "just getting a lot of pressure to run for governor and I wanted everyone to know with plenty of time to come up with a new candidate."
She did not offer an explanation about why she chose not to run for governor. But she did reiterate her intention to bow out of politics altogether and return to work in the private sector and said she has no plans to run for public office in future elections beyond 2018.
Jenkins was at the Statehouse to attend the traditional Kansas Day festivities. But she appeared to be trying to keep a low profile, sitting in the back of the audience and stepping out to leave before the end of the event. She responded to only a few questions from reporters who caught up with her in the stairwell as she was leaving the building.
Traditionally, the governor also attends Kansas Day events at the Statehouse, but Gov. Sam Brownback was absent this year. His office said he was in Washington, D.C., Friday to join the national anti-abortion rally.
Sunday, Jan. 29, marks the 156th anniversary of the day Kansas was admitted to the union as the 34th state.
Jenkins' announcement on Wednesday stunned many in Kansas politics, in part because it had been widely assumed that she planned to run for governor in 2018. That was suggested last year when she launched a state-based political action committee to help Republican legislative candidates, as well as her decision after the election to step down from her leadership position as vice chair of the House Republican Conference.
House Republicans, however, went through a major upheaval in 2015 when rebellious members of the caucus forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, with whom Jenkins had been a close ally, and replaced him with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But the timing of her announcement also raised eyebrows because it came so soon after her 2016 re-election and less than two weeks into the new Donald Trump administration. Jenkins has long been a solid supporter of many issues Trump campaigned on, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and passage of large-scale federal tax reform.
Some have suggested that her early announcement will leave her as a lame duck during her final term in office, but Jenkins said she thinks it will put her in "a great position to get something done."
"I can focus full-time on rolling up my sleeves and getting health care fixed and getting tax reform done, which have jurisdiction in our (Ways and Means) committee," she said.
She also said she thinks it will enhance her power within the House, "because they know that I want to get something done and we just have two years to get it done."
Former House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, is planning to throw his hat in the ring for the upcoming special election in the 4th Congressional District. McKinney said he plans to make a formal announcement Wednesday.
The special election is being held to fill the vacancy created when Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, of Wichita, was confirmed as CIA director in the Donald Trump administration.
McKinney served 16 years in the Kansas House, from 1992 through 2008, including the last six years as minority leader. In 2008, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointed him as state treasurer, filling the vacancy created when Lynn Jenkins was elected to the 2nd District congressional seat. He ran for a full term in that office in 2010 but was defeated by Republican Ron Estes.
Estes, of Wichita, is also expected to announce plans to seek the Republican nomination for the 4th District seat.
McKinney is generally seen as a conservative Democrat who as a legislator voted in favor of increased restrictions on abortion procedures. He was also seen as a supporter of increased funding for public education.
The last Democrat to hold the 4th District seat was former Rep. Dan Glickman, who held that seat for nine terms until 1994, when he lost his bid for a 10th term to Republican Todd Tiahrt.
Gov. Sam Brownback has not yet set a date for the special election. Under a new law just enacted to accommodate Pompeo's resignation, he must issue a proclamation within five days of the vacancy announcement calling for a special election to take place at least 75 days, but not more than 90 days, from the date of the proclamation.
Political parties will hold district conventions to select their nominees for the special election. Those conventions must be held at least 15 days, but not more than 25 days, from the date of the proclamation.
Kansas Democratic Party executive director Kerry Gooch said the party has not yet set a tentative date for its convention, but he expected it will be held either the weekend of Feb. 11 or Feb. 18.
The 4th District covers all or part of 16 counties in south-central Kansas, including Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita.
In the 2016 elections, Pompeo won the seat by a 31-point margin over Democrat Daniel Giroux, 61-30 percent. Trump carried the district, 60-33 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. Senate Monday night confirmed Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, setting up a special election that could turn into the first public referendum on President Donald Trump's new administration.
By most assessments, such a referendum would likely end favorably for whomever the Republican Party nominates, and for Trump himself, who carried the 4th District in the 2016 election, 60-38 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In that same election, Pompeo won a fourth term for his seat by an even wider margin, 61-30 percent over Democrat Daniel B. Giroux.
Pompeo was expected to submit his formal resignation immediately after the confirmation vote. Once Gov. Sam Brownback receives notice of that resignation, he will issue a proclamation declaring a vacancy in the seat and setting a date for a special election.
Kansas legislators rushed in the opening days of the session to push through a bill cleaning up the state's special election statutes, which haven't been invoked since the last congressional vacancy in 1950. The law now reads that the governor has five days from the day the vacancy occurs to issue a proclamation calling for a special election.
That election must be held 75-90 days after the vacancy occurs. Political parties must wait at least 15, but no more than 25 days to hold a convention to select their nominees.
Brownback's office did not issue any statements Monday night about a special election, but it did post a comment on Twitter congratulating Pompeo for his confirmation:
"He's brilliant. He's qualified. He's Kansan. And now he's our new @CIA Director. Congratulations to @RepMikePompeo."
Pompeo's confirmation occurred on the same day the Gallop polling organization released the first public job approval rating for President Trump, showing the nation evenly divided, 45-45 percent, on his performance in office so far.
So the decision for 4th District Republicans may be whether they want to nominate someone who will be close and loyal to the Trump administration, or perhaps someone who promises to be more independent-minded.
The strategy for Democrats, though, will likely be to cast anyone the GOP nominates as a Trump loyalist, hoping to capitalize on his relatively low national approval ratings.
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the GOP has tentatively set Thursday, Feb. 9, as the date for its district convention, to be held somewhere in Wichita. That's the day before the state GOP's statewide convention begins. The Kansas Democratic Party did not respond Monday to questions about its nomination plans.
So far, State Treasurer Ron Estes and Alan Cobb, a Trump campaign adviser and former lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, have publicly expressed their interest in the nomination. And former 4th District Rep. Todd Tiahrt is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate.
On the Democratic side, no top-tier politicians have stepped forward to announce plans for the seat, but party insiders have been strongly recruiting former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg to throw his hat in the ring. Current Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, is also mentioned as a possible candidate. Both told the Journal-World recently that they've made no decision about the race.
With every change of administrations in Washington, D.C. comes an expectation of change. For some, those expectations are wrapped in a sense of hope and optimism; and for others, depending on one's political leanings, they're wrapped with fear and apprehension.
That was certainly true eight years ago when Barack Obama was sworn into office following his "hope and change" campaign. And it is perhaps even more true now with the inauguration of his successor, Donald J. Trump, as the 45th President of the United States.
Many of the changes Trump has suggested would affect Americans, and perhaps the world, uniformly. But the state of Kansas and its economy have particular issues and concerns at stake, and so I've tried to put together a list of the top five policy areas in which Kansas may have a unique set of interests.
No. 1: Medicaid and Obamacare
I list this first, only because it's at the top of many state lawmakers' agenda this year, and because it has been suddenly thrust into front-page news in recent days.
One of the highlights of the Trump campaign was his oft-repeated promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act, which he has dubbed "a disaster."
"On day one of the Trump Administration, we will ask Congress to immediately deliver a full repeal of Obamacare," Trump stated on his campaign website.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 96,304 Kansans signed up for subsidized individual health policies this year through the exchange markets that were set up under the ACA, and another 150,000 or so could receive KanCare coverage if Kansas takes advantage of the Medicaid expansion provisions of the ACA.
Earlier this week, a Medicaid expansion bill was introduced in the Kansas House, with apparent bipartisan support. But on Thursday, the day before Trump's inauguration, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer was in Washington meeting with congressional committees about the future of Medicaid in the Trump administration.
What Colyer and many others expect is that the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress want to convert Medicaid into a block grant program, presumably one with fewer requirements attached. Currently, the federal government pays a share of the actual cost of the program in each state, and there are a whole host of requirements each state must meet in order to qualify for the funding.
Kansas is currently operating under a waiver of those rules so it can run Medicaid in Kansas, now known as KanCare, as a privatized, managed care system. That means private insurance companies that now run the program are paid a flat rate for each beneficiary, known as a "capitated rate," and they are responsible for managing the care of each patient.
But the state's application to renew that waiver for another year, taking it through 2018, was denied this week after federal officials cited the program for multiple deficiencies, many of which they said threatened the health and well-being of Medicaid patients.
Colyer brushed that off as being politically motivated and a "parting shot by the Obama administration on its way out the door."
But it will be up to the new Trump administration to decide (a) whether Kansas can continue operating a privatized managed care system, and (b) whether it will be allowed to expand Medicaid as current law allows, assuming for the sake of argument that an expansion bill can get through the Legislature and over an almost-certain veto by Gov. Sam Brownback.
No. 2: Climate change and clean power
As a candidate, Trump dismissed the science of climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. And in the Kansas Legislature there are still a number of climate change skeptics in leadership positions, including Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, who chairs the Senate Utilities Committee.
But whether one agrees or disagrees with climate change science, there is no escaping the fact that the shift to clean, renewable energy has benefited the Kansas economy. In his State of the State address Jan. 10, Brownback himself touted the fact that there has been $10 billion worth of investment in wind energy projects in Kansas. Wind energy now accounts for roughly 25 percent of all the electricity produced in Kansas.
That percentage is set to grow even more under the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which would require Kansas to reduce its carbon emissions from power plants over the next several years. Republicans in the Kansas congressional delegation, and many in the Kansas Legislature, have been sharply critical of the CPP, and Trump has promised to end it.
That could mean a lot to Kansans, especially farmers and ranchers who stand to make money — more than they can make growing corn or cattle these days — leasing portions of their land to wind energy companies.
The Hill reported Friday that the White House web page about climate change was taken down less than an hour after he was sworn in.
No. 3: Agriculture and trade policy
Trump won 57 percent of the vote in Kansas in 2016, and much of that was due to support he received in rural Kansas.
Warren Parker, director of policy communications for the Kansas Farm Bureau, said Kansas farmers are optimistic about the Trump administration for one big reason: his promise to overhaul and reduce government regulations.
"One of the main things, a positive, is looking to overturn some of this horrendously overreaching regulation that has come in recent years," he said, noting in particular the Obama administration's policies regarding Waters of the United States, or WOTUS rules that some say would have extended the reach of the Clean Water Act into drainage ditches and farm ponds, as well as actions to protect habitat of the lesser prairie chicken.
But while farmers are optimistic about regulatory reform, Parker said KFB is taking more of a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Trump's trade policies.
That's especially important to the state's agriculture industry as a whole, which exported more than $3.3 billion worth of products in 2015, with Mexico accounting for one-fourth of those exports, or $842 million worth.
Japan was second on the Kansas ag export list at $470 million, followed by Canada at $436 million and China at $403 million.
During a presidential candidate debate in September, Trump referred to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which covers trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico, as "the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country," and he has vowed to withdraw from it.
He also made similar comments about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and said he wants to replace those global and regional agreements with "bilateral" trade agreements negotiated one country at a time.
Finally, he has openly accused China of currency manipulation in order to lower the cost of its own exports, raising the prospect of U.S. retaliation that some fear could lead to an all-out trade war.
"I think the new president is not so much against trade or for using it as a weapon, but he does want to make sure it’s working more for the U.S.," Parker said. "We’ll see how that works out." But he went on to say that Trump, "has promised agriculture a seat at the table (in any new trade negotiations) and we plan to be there."
"There is no doubt that agricultural trade and the ability to export commodities will be extremely important, but we do look forward to working with the new president in looking at how those (trade agreements) were put together and where we go from here," Parker said.
No. 4: Highways and infrastructure
One issue that Trump has said Republicans and Democrats should work together on is making a massive new investment in public infrastructure. He has proposed a $1 trillion program in upgrading the nation's roads, bridges, tunnels and airports.
That will be of particular interest in Kansas, where an estimated $2 billion has been swept out of the state highway fund in the last five years to shore up the state general fund in the wake of massive revenue shortfalls.
It remains to be seen, though, how far that idea will go in a Republican-controlled Congress. Although Trump hasn't been specific about the plan, he and others on his team have talked about financing much of it with private investments and incentives, with private companies bidding on projects and then recovering their costs either through tolls or state payments.
That could mean a lot more highways and bridges in Kansas will require tolls in the future, something Kansans seem to tolerate on the Turnpike, but certainly not anything they're particularly fond of.
No. 5: Immigration
No conversation about Donald Trump would be complete without mentioning his stance on immigration. He launched his campaign in June 2015 with the now-famous remark: "When Mexico sends it people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
He followed that up in December 2015] by saying he also wanted a, "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Since then, his statements have varied whenever asked what, exactly, he would do about Mexican and Muslim immigration. But whatever actions he takes, they are bound to have a significant impact in Kansas, especially in areas like southwest Kansas where the meatpacking industry is heavily reliant on immigrant labor, as well as in university towns like Lawrence where international students from all parts of the globe are a significant feature in campus culture.
Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education, faced tough questions during her confirmation hearing Tuesday from many senators on the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but not from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts.
Instead, Roberts steered entirely clear of all K-12 education issues during his five minutes of questioning and focused solely on federal regulations affecting higher education.
Recalling a meeting he'd held recently with higher education officials in Kansas, including, apparently, Johnson County Community College, Roberts held up a chart that he'd evidently printed off of a computer. Roberts remarked on the large volume of federal programs and regulations that officials at Kansas public colleges and universities told him they deal with.
"These are 34 topics or areas of federal regulation, some of them very, very, very important," Roberts said. "But the collective judgment was that they were so intrusive, so expensive, so time-consuming that they had to get an office of compliance just to look at the federal regulations, and then they assign bad-news bearers to go tell all the various departments that make up the Johnson County Community College."
Roberts went on to say that the sheer volume of regulations indicated to him "that we need to work together to eliminate many of these burdensome regulations that hinder the institutions of higher education's main goal, to educate our students effectively and efficiently."
Roberts wasn't specific about which regulations he wants to repeal. Among the federal regulations that apply to higher education institutions are Title IX regulations that ban gender-based discrimination, along with a host of financial regulations relating to federally funded research and federal student financial aid programs.
While Roberts was almost alone in focusing attention on the Department of Education's role in higher education, most of the other senators focused their questions on K-12 education, and in particular DeVos' support for charter schools and voucher programs that use public funds to pay tuition costs at private and parochial schools.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tried to get DeVos to identify how much money she and her husband, billionaire Dick DeVos, who is heir to the Amway fortune, had contributed to political candidates over the years, a figure he estimated at about $200 million.
"That's possible," DeVos said.
Some of the sharpest questioning came from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who challenged DeVos' knowledge and familiarity with fundamental issues confronting K-12 education, such as the question of whether the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exams, should focus on measuring "proficiency" or student "growth."
"This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," Franken said. "I've advocated growth, as the chairman and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who, no matter what they do, will never get to proficiency. So I've been an advocate for growth, but it surprises me that you don't know this issue."
Roberts, however, pointed out that the committee plans to work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act in the coming months and that "regulations are one of the key areas this committee will focus on" during that process.
"Will you be a partner in addressing many of these time-consuming regulations?" Roberts asked.
"Yes, I can commit to you that if confirmed I will look forward to working with you and this committee on that act and on the regulations you've referred to, and wanting to help free our institutions of higher learning to the greatest extent possible, to do what they do best," DeVos replied.
Wednesday afternoon, Democrats in the Kansas Legislature issued a joint letter to Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, criticizing her stance on charter schools and urging the senators to reject DeVos’ nomination. “She’s never attended public schools, taught or administrated, nor were her children educated in public schools,” the letter stated. “She is unqualified for the position of Education Secretary and her confirmation will imperil our students – particularly those most vulnerable.”
TOPEKA — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach asked for a bill to be introduced Tuesday that would give him authority to hold "bifurcated" elections so that potentially tens of thousands of registered voters could not vote in state or local elections.
It would apply to people who register to vote using a federal process that does not require people to show proof of citizenship, ensuring that they could only vote in federal elections, not state or local elections.
"It’s sort of an interim bill during litigation to keep the integrity of the (proof of citizenship) law while it’s being litigated," Kobach told the Senate Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government.
The bill comes in response to a string of state and federal court rulings leading up to the 2016 elections that all but nullified the proof of citizenship law that he championed in 2011.
First, a federal judge in Kansas City, Kan., granted a temporary injunction partially blocking the state from enforcing the law. The court said Kansas could not use its citizenship requirement to block people from voting in federal elections, and that ruling was eventually upheld by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Those federal forms currently only require applicants to attest, under penalty of perjury, that they are U.S. citizens, but they do not require people to show documentary proof of citizenship.
In response, Kobach attempted to enact a new regulation that would have required those people to cast provisional ballots so that only their votes in federal races would be counted. But the American Civil Liberties Union challenged that in state court, and in September a Shawnee County District Court judge said Kobach had no statutory authority to hold such a "bifurcated" election in which there would essentially have to be two separate voter registration lists: one for people who can vote in all elections and another for people who could only vote in federal races.
Kobach has appealed the Shawnee County decision to the Kansas Court of Appeals. In addition, the federal court in Kansas City, Kan., has not yet issued a final ruling in a set of cases that say the citizenship law conflicts with federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
So, while those cases are still being litigated, Kobach has asked for legislation to grant him specific authority to hold bifurcated elections.
"This bill clarifies that for state elections, you have to prove your citizenship under Kansas law in this interim period where the case is in court," Kobach said in a separate telephone interview Tuesday.
Kobach's bill may be just one of several opportunities lawmakers have this year to discuss the proof of citizenship law. Democrats in the Legislature have said they plan to offer measures, either as a separate bill or an amendment onto another election bill, to repeal the citizenship requirement altogether.
Downplaying 'lost' registrations
Also Tuesday, Kobach downplayed the significance of news reports over the weekend that "thousands" of ballots were thrown out during the 2016 elections, including many from people who said they had successfully registered using the state's online registration system.
That story was first reported by The Associated Press and was carried in several Kansas news outlets, including the Lawrence Journal-World. It noted that a potentially large number of people registered using the state's online system and received confirmation that their registrations were successful, only to find out at the polls that the registrations had not gone through. The problem was attributed to a "glitch" in a web-based system that communicates between the secretary of state's office and the Division of Vehicles in the Department of Revenue.
Kobach told reporters Tuesday that only a small percentage of the provisional ballots that were thrown out during the November elections were related to that computer glitch.
"The thousands of ballots thrown out had to do with provisional ballots, and every year thousands of provisional ballots are cast, and about 30 percent of those thousands are thrown out because the person does not legally qualify to cast a vote," Kobach said. "The tiny, smaller issue within the article was, of course, what you’re now referring to, and that is the computer glitch, if you will, that the (Division of Vehicles) had."
Kobach said the problem was that if the Division of Vehicles' server went down while someone was in the process of using it, the user would get a message saying the registration was complete, but the computer system would not record it and relay the information back to the secretary of state's office.
Bryan Caskey, who heads the Elections Division in the secretary of state's office, said he didn't know exactly how many voters had been affected, but he described it as, "more than a handful and less than several hundred."
Officials at the Department of Revenue declined to comment on the situation "because of pending litigation."
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, however, said he wasn't satisfied with that answer.
"It has been stated that if one person votes illegally, it hurts the election," Shew said, referring to Kobach's own justification for strict photo ID and proof of citizenship laws that he says are intended to prevent noncitizens from voting. "This is a frustration we’ve been dealing with for quite some time."
Shew said his office began tracking cases of voters who claimed to have registered online because there have been a growing number of them over the last few election cycles.
Shew said that in Douglas County alone in November, there were 148 provisional ballots cast by people who said they had registered online, but whose registrations were not recorded in the poll books. Of those, he said, 56 were eventually counted, either because officials were able to find a record of the registration or the person had a confirmation receipt or a screenshot of the computer screen showing they had registered successfully. But the other 92 provisional ballots from that group were not counted, he said, because officials could not find a record of their registration and they did not have a confirmation receipt or screenshot showing they'd completed the process.
"It is extremely frustrating as an administrator of an election when you have someone standing there with a receipt saying they’re duly registered, but they're not showing up in the poll books," he said. "That system’s not working."
An election bill and the first tax bill of the session are awaiting Kansas lawmakers as they head into the second week of the session starting Tuesday, with most lawmakers coming off of a four-day weekend.
Friday was a "pro forma" day, meaning only a handful of lawmakers in each chamber show up to gavel in, read the introduction of a few bills, and gavel out, ensuring that it counts as a legislative business day, and that they all get their daily salary and allowance. Lawmakers are off Monday for the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.
The Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Government Committee will get to work at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday on the elections bill that the House passed on Wednesday. That's the one that cleans up the outdated statute on special elections to fill vacancies in U.S. House seats. Lawmakers are rushing to get that bill to Gov. Sam Brownback to sign before Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita is confirmed as CIA director.
Probably the most exciting hearing next week, however, will be in the House Taxation Committee at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. It will hold a hearing on House Bill 2023, which would repeal the so-called LLC loophole that allows the owners of more than 330,000 farms and small businesses to pay no state taxes at all on the income they derive from those operations.
The bill would repeal that provision, and make the repeal retroactive to Jan. 1, 2017. It also repeals several other minor provisions of the 2012 tax bill dealing with adjustments that the state makes to federal adjusted gross incomes when people use that figure to file their state income taxes.
That law is thought to be the most unpopular part of the tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback and conservatives in the Legislature pushed through in 2012, and many of the new legislators who won election in 2016 campaigned specifically on a promise to repeal it.
By itself, though, repealing the LLC loophole would only generate about $250 million a year, give or take. The official "fiscal note" on the bill hadn't been published at the time of this writing. The biggest part of the 2012 tax cuts — the part that resulted in the largest drop in income tax revenue — was eliminating the top tax bracket for the wealthiest filers and reducing individual rates across the board on the remaining two brackets.
There are members on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers of the Legislature, who would prefer to see a more comprehensive tax package that would actually put the state back on the road to long-term financial stability, and they fear that passing a stand-alone bill on the LLC exemption will make it tougher to pass any other tax legislation this year.
The traditional practice on tax bills is to bundle several things together so there's something in the bill for everybody to dislike, but also one or two things that different constituencies want. But that's usually only successful if there's a governor who is willing to hold his or her nose and swallow a few things, and Brownback hasn't given much indication that he's willing to cave on any part of his tax plan.
That means the only alternative is to put together a broad-based tax package that can get two-thirds majorities in both chambers to override an almost certain governor's veto. That's a monumental task on almost any topic, but none more so than tax increases.
Other committees are still in their early stages of the process, getting briefings on various issues and meeting with the cabinet secretaries in charge of each committee's policy area, mainly for the benefit of new legislators who are unfamiliar with all the details of issues that their committees deal with.
The House Appropriations Committee will get a briefing at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the unclaimed property portfolio. Currently, the state puts a portion of its idle funds, equal to the amount it holds in unclaimed property, into a special investment fund managed by the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System where those assets can earn interest.
Brownback has proposed liquidating those assets and cashing in the estimated $45 million in accrued earnings.
On Thursday, the same panel will hear presentations on the KPERS fund and Children's Initiatives Fund. Brownback has proposed freezing the state's contribution into KPERS at 2016 levels for the next two years and writing off the nearly $93 million payment that the state delayed making last year and was supposed to repay this year.
He has also proposed selling off the state's interest in future tobacco settlement payments, the sole source of funding for the Children's Initiatives Fund, and putting CIF-funded programs into the state general fund.
The K-12 Education Budget Committee, which will be in charge of writing a new school finance formula on the House side, will hear presentations at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday from Dale Dennis, a deputy education commissioner and expert on school finance issues, as well as Madeleine Burkindine, director of the Schools for the Deaf and Blind.
On the Senate side, the Transportation Committee will hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday on Senate Bill 5, which would enable certain people whose driver's licenses are suspended for failure to pay a traffic fine to apply for a restricted drivers license.
The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee will hear from the Attorney General's office Wednesday on the status of a lawsuit pending at the Kansas Supreme Court challenging an abortion law. It will also be briefed on the state's concealed-carry law, including provisions set to take effect July 1 requiring most municipal buildings, as well as college and university campuses, to allow people to carry concealed weapons unless they provide adequate security to ensure nobody can bring weapons into the same places.
The Senate Utilities Committee will hear a presentation at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday from the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association on the status of the oil and gas industry in Kansas. The Brownback administration asserts that low commodity prices in the oil and gas industry are largely responsible for the sluggish economic growth and lower-than-expected tax revenues in Kansas for the last few years.
The above list is a partial schedule of events, as published in the House and Senate calendars on Friday. All schedules and topics are subject to change.
In their first joint news conference of the session, the two Democratic leaders of the Legislature said they believe the only long-term solution to the state's ongoing budget problems is through taxes, and specifically repealing many or all of the sweeping tax cuts that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012.
"We can't possibly cut our way out of this problem," Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka said. "We don't need to cut the budget. What we need to do is find a revenue solution."
Hensley was responding to an earlier statement from Senate Republican leaders earlier in the week in which they criticized Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's budget proposal, saying, "The solution will require a combination of cuts and changes to tax policy."
One problem is, there is only one major reversal of Brownback's tax policies that might stand a chance of getting the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a near-certain veto: repealing the so-called LLC exemption. But that, by itself, only generates about $250 million a year, which budget analysts say is not nearly enough to fix the state's long-term structural budget problem unless its coupled with significant spending cuts.
Democrats, as well as many Republicans, are saying they want a long-term, structural fix to the state's budget problems. The problem is, there probably isn't as much support for passing other measures to reverse the 2012 tax cuts, like reinstating a third bracket for upper-income tax filers, or raising individual tax rates across the board to their pre-2012 levels.
"The LLC repeal is overwhelmingly popular. There's probably not 10 people in this building with a vote on the floor who support that anymore," House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita said. "That's the sugar. But if you take the sugar and eat the dessert first, it's hard to get the meat and potatoes down."
It should also be noted that when a stand-alone bill to repeal the LLC loophole came to the floor of the House last year, nearly half of the Democratic caucus at that time voted against it.
"And that was because they knew, the hard, heavy lifting wasn't in the bill, and it was political gamesmanship," Ward said, although he himself voted for the repeal.
So the quandary for lawmakers is this: While there may be overwhelming support for repealing the LLC loophole, it may actually be difficult to pass as a stand-alone bill because Democrats, as well as most moderate Republicans, view it as only a partial fix, and because passing it alone will make it harder to get support later in the session for other, more difficult tax increases.
At the same time, if repealing the LLC loophole is attached to a bunch of other tax measures that are less popular politically, the whole package becomes difficult just to pass out of the Legislature, let alone garner the two-thirds majority needed to override an almost certain governor's veto.
Hensley said he still wants to try for the larger fix, but he acknowledged that repeal of the LLC loophole may be the only thing that passes this year.
"It's very likely that will be the only thing that's done, in terms of tax reform, which I think would be very unwise and unproductive," he said.
The test of how far lawmakers are willing to go on taxes may come on Thursday when the House Taxation Committee takes up a bill that would repeal the LLC loophole, but otherwise would not change overall income tax rates.
Any hopes that House Democrats had of forming a governing coalition with moderate Republicans this year were dampened Thursday, but maybe only a little, after a vote to change an obscure but important rule of the House fell almost exactly on Democratic-Republican party lines.
But while the rules may be obscure to outside observers, Thursday's vote may be a precursor of things to come when the House gets ready in the coming weeks to vote on a bill to fill this year's $340 million budget gap.
At issue was a rule commonly known as "PAY-Go," an acronym for "pay as you go." It says that when a spending bill comes to the floor of the House, no amendment can be made to increase spending in one area unless it's accompanied by a cut of equal or greater size in some other area of the bill.
Democrats, and some Republicans, have long been frustrated by that rule because, they say, it puts too much power in the hands of a handful of lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee to determine the upper limit of what the state is going to spend.
It was enacted in 2011 after conservative Republicans gained full control of the House. They argued that it was intended to prevent so-called "gotcha" votes that were common before then, when members would offer amendments to add funding for politically popular programs, even though there wasn't sufficient money to pay for them, effectively daring the other side to vote no, which would naturally lead to postcards in the next election saying, "Rep. (fill in the name) opposed funding a great thing."
Others, however, have suggested it was also about tax policy. By adding amendments to increase spending, Democrats and moderates could force the hand of the tax committees to either raise enough revenue to pay for the budget, or prevent those committees from passing large tax cuts.
The proposed new rules offered to loosen the pay-go rule a little bit by providing that members could offer amendments to raise spending in years when the state has a projected ending balance of at least 7.5 percent of total spending. But Democrats wanted to go further by repealing the pay-go rule entirely.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, offered that amendment, arguing among other things that the pay-go rule prevents lawmakers who are not on the Appropriations Committee from fully representing the interests of their constituents.
Helgerson has been in and out of the Legislature (but mostly in) since 1983 and served on the Appropriations Committee long before the PAY-Go rule was adopted.
"PAY-Go was put in as a way of controlling the discussion on the floor," he said. "We always balanced budgets before this, and we actually did a better job than what's gone on in the last few years."
But in the first vote in which Democrats were hoping to pull moderate Republicans to their side and overturn policies enacted by conservatives, the effort failed.
Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, a moderate Republican and the new House Majority Leader, stood up to oppose the amendment, arguing that it was really a moot issue. "We're broke, and there's no possibility of finding another pot of money to add anything to a budget right now," he said.
The vote, although unrecorded, fell almost exactly on party lines: 39 Democrats and one Republican voted yes; 82 Republicans voted no.
"I think there are still opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to work together," Helgerson said after the vote, "but they've got to prove they want to work on the budget. They haven't proved it yet."
Rep. Tom Sawyer, another Wichita Democrat who has been in and out of the House since the 1980s, said he was only mildly frustrated by the vote.
"I think there's a good spirit of cooperation here," Sawyer said, noting that both parties worked for passage of the first bill of the session dealing with special congressional elections. "Yeah, we'd like to have gotten rid of the PAY-Go rule, but I think there's still a lot of positive attitude. Maybe not a encouraging as if we'd gotten rid of PAY-Go, but we'll see."
Meanwhile, Hineman said he still hopes for more bipartisan cooperation as the session goes on.
"PAY-Go is a difficult question for a lot of members of this body. I don't think it was entirely reflected in the vote today," he said. "But I do stand on my assertion that right now, it's a moot point. We're broke. The more important question is, will leadership allow full and open debate, and the bringing of amendments within the framework of PAY-Go, and that hasn't always been the case in the past. I think it will be this time."
The Capitol rotunda in Topeka was packed and loud Wednesday as a diverse group of liberal and progressive organizations banded together to advance what they called a “Kansas People’s Agenda.”
The list of causes includes, but is not limited to: environmental justice; health care access for all; LGBT rights; immigrant rights; “responsible” gun policy; and anti-corruption reform, just to name a few.
What was interesting about the rally, at least from a tactical sense, was the bringing-together of so many interest groups that don't always have a lot in common.
The issues have been around the Statehouse for years and in some cases decades. And what typically happens in a conservative state like Kansas is that whenever a bill comes up dealing with only one of those issues — say, a bill scaling back clean air requirements on coal-fired power plants — only the environmental advocates show up. Advocates for LGBT rights, child welfare, education funding are usually not present, as such.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, a Lawrence activist who lobbies on environmental issues, called it an example of “fusion” politics — bringing diverse groups together under one umbrella, mainly for the purpose of opposing a common foe, which in this case is presumably Gov. Sam Brownback and the socially conservative Legislature that has dominated the Statehouse for the past six years.
Fusion politics has been around for some time, and it has taken many forms over the years, but it would seem that the phrase is just now coming back into vogue.
A 2005 article in the magazine The Nation described how it works in New York State, where there are more than two major parties, and candidates for state and local office can run under multiple party banners at one time.
In that way, a minor party like the Working Families Party in New York can curry favor with both of the major parties while also maintaining a core base of support of its own.
Although fusion politics today tends to be linked with liberal and progressive causes, it can also be used just as effectively from the right.
In fact, last year at the Kansas Statehouse, a crowd that dwarfed the Kansas People’s Agenda rally in terms of size rallied in favor of so-called “religious freedom” legislation. It was made up of people from a wide range of religious faiths — although probably not as diverse as the People’s Agenda crowd — whose main theme was to push back against same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws that they viewed as a threat to their core religious beliefs.
But as in any other kind of political mobilizing activity, the success of the movement will not be measured by the number of people organizers can bring together for a one-day event. The measure will be how many they can bring out to the polls on Election Day.
A Kansas House committee on Monday rushed to advance a bill to clean up rules that would govern a special election for a congressional seat, under the assumption that 4th District Congressman Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as the next CIA director.
Supporters say the bill is needed in order to hold a special election that would comply with current federal and state laws. Kansas has not seen a vacancy in one of its U.S. House seats since 1950, when then-Rep. Herbert A. Meyer, R-Independence, died just shortly before the November election. The law now on the books dealing with special elections was written in 1969, long before new federal laws came into play to make sure military personnel and other people voting by absentee ballot are given enough time to have their votes counted.
Under current law, whenever a vacancy occurs in a U.S. House seat, the governor must issue a proclamation calling for a special election to take place within 45-60 days of the vacancy. Each party then must wait at least 25 days from the date of a proclamation to call a convention to nominate a candidate. That leaves at most only 35 days from the time the candidates are known until the day of the election.
The problem is that under more recent federal laws enacted since 1969, local election officials are required to mail out ballots to military and other federal personnel stationed outside the state at least 45 days before the election. So there would be no way the special election in the 4th District could comply with that requirement.
House Bill 2017 would extend the deadlines by providing that the election will be held 75 to 90 days after the vacancy occurs, and requiring parties to call their district conventions 15 to 25 days after the proclamation is issued.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach told the House Elections Committee that the bill needs to pass quickly, before Pompeo is forced to resign his seat. Otherwise, he said, if Pompeo resigns under current law, the special election would have to be held under the laws in place at the time of his resignation.
The bill also makes it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballot for a special election. Currently, the law requires those candidates to collect petition signatures equal to at least 4 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last regular election. For the 4th District, that would be about 17,000 signatures, which a potential independent candidate would have to collect in just a matter of weeks.
Originally, the bill would have lowered that threshold to just 1,000 signatures, but officials from both major parties said they felt that was too low because it would allow someone who loses at the convention level to quickly re-register as an independent and get on the ballot anyway as an independent. As a compromise, the committee amended the bill to require 3,000 signatures.
So far, the major Republican candidates who have announced interest in the race are State Treasurer Ron Estes, and Alan Cobb, a former lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. And on Tuesday, Wichita attorney George Bruce officially added his name to the list.
On the Democratic side, a few people with little or no political experience have stepped forward, including frequent candidate Robert Tillman. But a few other higher-profile Democrats have said they are still considering the race, including Rep. Henry Helgerson, of Wichita, and former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg.