Entries from blogs tagged with “Kansas government”
Kansas legislative leaders on Wednesday authorized two more interim committees, one to begin work crafting a new school finance formula and another to examine the state's long list of sales tax exemptions.
The most interesting aspect of the sales tax panel appears to be that none of the Republicans on the Senate tax committee want to serve on it. At least that was the explanation given by Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, of Hutchinson. So instead, it will be chaired by Sen. Ty Masterson, who chairs the Senate's appropriations committee.
Lawmakers included a proviso in this year's budget bill calling for a study of sales tax exemptions. That was offered as a compromise between those who wanted to repeal some of those exemptions as part of the budget package and those who said the Legislature has already been down that road, and there is simply no political support for doing it.
Over the years, numerous items have been exempted from sales tax. Some of them, like Girl Scout cookies and other items sold by nonprofit charitable organizations, are in line with other tax laws that allow income tax deductions for charitable contributions.
But others have been added over the years for purely political or economic development reasons. They include taxes on "services," which can include everything from haircuts to health care and legal services. They also include labor and materials used in new home construction.
The most outspoken critic of reopening that subject was Senate tax committee chairman Les Donovan, R-Wichita, who said the Legislature has studied those exemptions numerous times, and each time learns that every exemption that exists was put into the tax code as a result of strong political support, and repealing them is nearly impossible.
On the school finance front, lawmakers have given themselves two years to craft a new school finance formula to replace the old per-pupil funding formula they repealed earlier this year. For the time being, lawmakers have authorized a system of "block grants" to school districts, basically giving them the same amount of money they received under the old formula for the next two years, with a little more flexibility to shift money between various funds.
The Legislative Coordinating Council, a group made up of the top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, endorsed a proposal from House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, to form a 13-member panel that will meet for at least three days between now and the 2016 session. Specifically, according to Merrick's proposal, that group will study:
• The outcomes-based standards known as the Rose Standards, which the Kansas Supreme Court has said will be the measuring stick to determine whether state funding for education is adequate.
• The best funding mechanism to ensure adequate money is invested "in the classroom."
• The definition of what constitutes a "suitable education."
• Outcomes to ensure that students are well-prepared for their future endeavors.
• And uniform accounting across all districts.
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, had offered a different plan that would have focused more on actually writing a new formula. He said the topics outlined by Merrick are many of the same conceptual topics that lawmakers have debated for several years.
But Merrick said the panel won't be limited just to those bullet points, and he said the panel may request additional meeting days if it feels that would be necessary.
A three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled in June that the block grant formula now in place is unconstitutional, both because it provides inadequate funding and because it doesn't provide equitable funding between school districts.
That decision has been appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which has divided the appeal into two parts. It will hear oral arguments on the equity issue in November, suggesting a decision could come early in the 2016 legislative session.
But it will wait until the spring of 2016 before hearing arguments on the much larger adequacy question. That suggests that a ruling on adequacy may not come until after lawmakers adjourn next year.
George Hansen, Gov. Sam Brownback's nominee for secretary of commerce, withdrew his name from consideration Tuesday, saying an extended family member has "extensive business dealings" with the agency.
A statement from Brownback's office gave no further details.
"I respect George's decision and have reluctantly accepted his request to withdraw his name," Brownback said. "I know him to be a man of integrity who would have served Kansas well."
Brownback announced his nomination Aug. 21, citing his "35 years of experience managing domestic and international businesses."
Most recently, he was president and CEO of the Enterprise Center of Johnson County, a venture development organization and early stage business incubator serving the Kansas City metropolitan area.
The Department of Commerce is the state's lead economic development agency. It has a budget of $113 million and administers the state's business, community and workforce development programs.
Hansen would have replaced Pat George, who retired as Commerce Secretary in July. His appointment was subject to Senate confirmation.
Gov. Sam Brownback announced Wednesday that he will hold a town hall meeting Thursday, Sept. 3, in Leavenworth to air concerns about a possible transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Fort Leavenworth.
That announcement was the third statement Brownback has made in recent days on the subject. On Aug. 20, the governor announced that he had spoken with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work opposing any attempt to move the prisoners to Kansas.
And Tuesday, he signed a joint statement with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, also a Republican, pledging that they "will not be part of any illegal and ill-advised action by the Administration, especially when that action relates to importing terrorists into our states.”
Brownback followed that up with a pre-recorded audio statement delivered to both print and broadcast news outlets saying, "To even discuss bringing those prisoners to the United States is an insult to those who perished in the Sept. 11 (2001) attacks and to those who've served in America's war on terror."
The furor stems from recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that the Obama administration, "is in the 'final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly' close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay." The administration is reportedly considering the military prison at Fort Leavenworth and the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C., as potential sites for receiving the prisoners.
The United States began sending "enemy combatants" to the detention center at Guantanamo shortly after launching the war in Afghanistan in 2002, during the George W. Bush administration, under the theory that prisoners could be held there indefinitely, without charges or being tried, because the prison is outside the United States and, therefore, beyond the reach of U.S. constitutional protections.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 men have been held prisoner there since 2002. Many of those have since been released to other countries. Today, an estimated 122 remain, including some who have been cleared for release but who are still being held because the U.S. cannot find another country that will take them.
The relatively new political group Women for Kansas will hold organizational meetings this week to launch a chapter in Lawrence as it gears up for the 2016 elections.
Deena Burnett, a former teacher in the Lawrence school district and a former president of the Lawrence Education Association, said the goal is to organize women to be a political force in the upcoming races.
"Most important thing is for women to hear themselves on the issues that are important to women," she said. "For a lot of them it’s good schools; for some it's equal rights for all citizens. The arts are important to our women’s groups. We want a fair, progressive tax system. Separation of church and state. Just some really solid core values that the women of Kansas have always appreciated, and we’ve seen those erode."
Women for Kansas describes itself as a nonpartisan group. It began in Wichita during the 2014 election cycle and it was given credit for helping to propel the candidacy of independent U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman.
Burnett, who retired from the Lawrence school district in 2013 and will soon go to work for the American Federation of Teachers, said Women for Kansas is now trying to organize statewide, with additional chapters opening in Salina, Manhattan and the Kansas City area.
The organizational meetings in Lawrence are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday and 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lawrence Public Library.
The Kansas Democratic Party confirmed today that Larry Meeker has resigned as chairman of the party after only five months on the job.
Kerry Gooch, the party's executive director, confirmed that Meeker submitted a letter of resignation Friday, just as the party's state committee is gathering in Wichita for its annual midyear DemoFest convention. His resignation is effective Monday, Aug. 24.
“Today I respectfully submit my resignation as Chair of the Kansas Democratic Party," Meeker said in his letter, according to a press release from the party. "My priorities may be diverting us from our primary goal of electing Democrats and restoring common sense to Kansas government.”
His resignation comes after Meeker made controversial comments to The Pitch and the Wichita Eagle, suggesting the party needs to change its image in order to appeal to a broader base of voters in a decidedly conservative state.
Chris Reeves, who works for the Democratic consulting firm Smoky Hills Strategies, told the Journal-World Thursday that those comments — including the suggestion that the party should change its name to "Red State Democrats" — angered a number of longtime party loyalists, including some of its top donors.
Lawrence-area Democrats said the timing of Meeker's resignation was unfortunate because it creates a distraction from the DemoFest convention, which the party had hoped to use to generate positive media coverage.
"It's disappointing to see internal party politics becoming news, which may distract Kansans from issues that really affect their lives," said Rep. John Wilson. :It seems we still need to work through some organizational challenges, but that doesn't change the fact that the Kansas Democratic Party is the only state party that is consistently reasonable and responsible, and that stands for policies that help all Kansans, not just a select few."
Rep. Boog Highberger said he was surprised by the resignation.
"I was concerned about the statements, but I didn’t expect a resignation," he said. "I think the timing’s not great. But I'm confident we can come together and move forward."
Meeker's comments helped expose a rift that has long simmered within the party between those who think working with moderate Republicans is the only way to form a governing coalition; and those who say Democrats should spend more time pushing their own agenda because, outside of a few issues like education funding and abortion rights, they disagree with moderates on many other issues.
Neither Meeker nor Gooch returned phone calls Thursday from the Journal-World for comment about those statements.
"I think working with moderate Republicans is important, but I think it's important that we actively campaign for Democrats," Highberger said. "Those things aren’t incompatible. Recent polling shows majority of Kansans agree with us."
Meeker, an economist and former Lake Quivira mayor, was elected chairman at the party's Washington Days convention in Topeka in March. He succeeded Joan Wagnon, a former state legislator, Topeka mayor and secretary of revenue under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The Kansas Democratic Party will gather in Wichita this weekend for its annual mid-year DemoFest convention.
Usually in odd-numbered years, these conventions can be something of a yawner. But this year could be different, with the 2016 elections coming up, and internal angst growing within the party over its three consecutive "clean-sweep" losses to Republicans.
So here are four things that political junkies of all stripes will be watching for this weekend:
• Paul Davis: Made a surprisingly strong run for governor in 2014 against incumbent Republican Sam Brownback, and led in most polls up until the final weeks of the campaign. The party has sent out emails inviting Democrats to "join him" at DemoFest, although he's not officially listed on any of the programs. Still, he's expected to show up, and a lot of people will be watching for signals or announcements about any future political ambitions he may have.
• The 'dark money' question: Officially, most Democrats are still against it. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said it's legal, and Democrats know a lot of their candidates have been crushed in recent elections under the weight of dark money flowing into campaigns from conservative groups with ties to Koch Industries.
Will Democrats stop complaining about dark money and finally decide to go get some? Well, it's worth noting that the keynote speaker at Saturday's banquet will be former Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer, who now heads Advantage 2020, a super-PAC dedicated to helping Democrats win state legislative races.
Question two on that subject: Can Kansas Democrats convince Schauer to spend any of that PAC money here?
• New candidates: We're still more than a year out from the 2016 elections, but Democrats have already started rolling out some candidates who plan to challenge sitting Republicans next year. Will any more make announcements at DemoFest, including potential congressional candidates?
• New message: For years, Kansas Democrats have branded themselves as the "pro-education" party. But lately, that hasn't been enough to win on a statewide basis. And the 2014 elections pretty much proved that their other main message, "Brownback = Bad," isn't enough either.
Some Democrats have urged party leaders to focus elsewhere — they already have the "pro-education" vote — and start talking more forcefully about bread-and-butter issues: tax fairness; rural development; highways; the minimum wage; and health care.
Larry Meeker, the new party chairman, has tried running a new theme up the flagpole, "Red State Democrats," emphasizing the idea that they recognize Kansas is a conservative state, and therefore trying to play down the "liberal" label they're often tagged with.
We're hoping get a better sense of how well that plays with the party faithful this weekend.
Democratic operatives in Kansas are touting new polling numbers this week that show most Kansans are more moderate than Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature on issues such as taxes, school funding, environmental and economic policies.
But even the people who commissioned the poll concede that Democrats have an uphill battle in convincing voters to trust them to govern on those issues.
"If Democrats want to be taken seriously, they’ve got to do something on these issues," said Chris Reeves, a partner in the Democratic consulting firm Smoky Hills Strategies.
The poll was released just days before the Kansas Democratic Party's midyear "DemoFest" convention in Wichita.
It also comes at a time when there is internal wrangling within the party over whether it should try to "re-brand" itself going into the 2016 elections, and whether Democrats should offer more concrete proposals on policy issues rather than simply criticizing Brownback and the Republicans over theirs.
The survey of 1,217 likely voters was conducted Aug. 5-6 by Public Policy Polling, a firm based in North Carolina that polls for Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.
Among its findings:
• 76 percent of those responding said the state's sales tax rate is now too high after Kansas lawmakers raised it this year to 6.5 percent.
• 72 percent believe business owners should have to pay Kansas personal income taxes like everyone else. (They were exempted in the tax cuts Brownback pushed through in 2012.)
• 62 percent think Kansas doesn't spend enough money on public education.
• 59 percent say they want Kansas to expand its Medicaid program, as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare."
• 57 percent say the state minimum wage should be raised to either $10 or $15 an hour.
• 43 percent want the state to re-enact the renewable portfolio standards on electric utilities, which Republicans repealed this year; and 27 percent think those standards should be stricter, requiring power companies to produce 30 percent of their power from renewable sources instead of the 20 percent required under the now-repealed law.
Patrick Miller, a political science professor at Kansas University, said those numbers are consistent with another poll this spring conducted by Fort Hays State University. But he said he's not surprised that elected officials in Kansas tend to enact more conservative policies.
"These attitudes also reflect generally the opinions Kansans expressed in a number of polls throughout 2013 and 2014," Miller said. "But, like in many states, there is a larger incentive for politicians to be responsive to what their primary voters want than what the public at large thinks."
Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said he wasn’t concerned about the polling numbers, and he doesn’t believe they provide any useful information heading into the 2016 elections.
“If Kansas Democrats want to run on raising taxes to expand Obamacare, be my guest,” he said.
Following three consecutive “clean-sweep” victories at the polls by Kansas Republicans, a division has opened up within Democratic ranks over how to appeal to a broader segment of voters.
That “schism,” as Reeves has called it, was on full display at the party’s last Washington Days convention in Topeka, where western Kansas Democrats like former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney openly criticized party leaders for focusing almost exclusively on urban voters while ignoring places like southeast Kansas, which was once a Democratic stronghold.
McKinney said that attitude was illustrated when Dakota Loomis, the party’s former communications director, posted an online comment about “craphole small towns” in southeast Kansas.
More recently, the party’s new chairman, Larry Meeker, has been actively trying to re-brand the party, but those efforts appear to be ruffling even more feathers.
Meeker was quoted this week in The Pitch, a Kansas City-based alternative newspaper, as saying he wanted to change the party’s name to “Red State Democrats,” dropping the word “Kansas,” while portraying themselves as fiscal conservatives.
In a Wichita Eagle article Wednesday, Meeker walked back from that statement, saying he was misinterpreted. But he went on to say that Democrats need to acknowledge that Kansas is a Republican state. And he tried to distance the state party from the national party by saying the typical Kansas Democrat would be considered a moderate Republican in states like California and Massachusetts.
Whether that comparison is accurate or not, Reeves said it did not sit well with the party’s financial donor base. And it also helped expose another rift within the party over efforts, both in election campaigns and in the Legislature, to form coalitions with moderate Republicans rather than pushing hard for a Democratic agenda.
Those are issues likely to be discussed, although more likely in private conversations than in public speeches, when the party gathers this weekend in Wichita.
Kansas lawmakers probably thought they were standing up for First Amendment freedoms when they passed a bill this year prohibiting cities and counties from regulating the placement of political yard signs. Or, maybe they were just acting in their own political self-interest.
Either way, officials at the League of Kansas Municipalities are now saying that instead of standing up for the First Amendment, lawmakers very probably violated it. And they're advising city councils and city attorneys to read up on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and to review their own ordinances to make sure they comply with federal law.
The provision of House Bill 2183 sprang out of controversy in Johnson County, where some cities had passed ordinances restricting the number of signs a resident could put in his or her yard. There have also been controversies in virtually every town about that strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk, which some cities hold is part of a public right-of-way, even though the homeowner or renter is responsible for mowing it.
The relevant part of the bill, which also deals with a number of other election and campaign finance issues, states:
"No city or county shall regulate or prohibit the placement of or the number of political signs on private property or the unpaved right-of-way for city streets or county roads on private property during the 45-day period prior to any election and the two-day period following any such election. Cities and counties may regulate the size and a set-back distance for the placement of signs so as not to impede sight lines or sight distance for safety reasons."
The bill —which, I repeat, had a lot of other provisions in it — passed the Senate on Saturday, May 30, by a vote of 27-11. Democratic Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City voted no; Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence was present but didn't vote. The next day, a Sunday (yes, lawmakers were meeting over the weekend), it passed the House, 66-48. All three Democrats from Lawrence voted yes: Barbara Ballard, Boog Highberger and John Wilson. Republican Tom Sloan voted no.
Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law the following Friday, June 5.
But two weeks later, on June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a somewhat similar ordinance in the case of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Ariz. There, a local ordinance prohibited displaying outdoor signs without a permit, with several notable exceptions. In those cases, the law applied different restrictions to "ideological" signs that convey an idea or philosophy; campaign signs that are meant to influence the outcome of an election; and "temporary directional" signs that point people to the location of a particular event.
Oddly, it was those temporary directional signs that got the town in trouble because a local church organization that met in different locations each week routinely violated the ordinance.
Nevertheless, the court, in a rare unanimous decision, struck down the law as a violation of the First Amendment protection of free speech. The problem, the court said, was that different regulations applied to different signs based on the content of the speech. Political speech was treated differently from ideological speech, and they were both different from speech pointing people to a church service.
If the town had been concerned about public safety, such as signs blocking a driver's view of an intersection, or if it was concerned about aesthetics, then it wouldn't matter what message was printed on the sign. All signs would be treated the same. But that's not what the folks of Gilbert, Ariz., did. They discriminated based on the content of the sign's message.
A federal judge in Kansas reached a similar conclusion in 1999, in the case of Outdoor Systems vs. Lenexa, when she struck down an ordinance that required permits for certain kinds of signs, but not political signs. it also placed restrictions on political signs, including a requirement that they be taken down within seven days after the election.
Officials at the League of Kansas Municipalities said they've already fielded a number of calls and emails from city attorneys asking questions about Kansas' new law. And in an article published in the League's monthly Kansas Government Journal, Larry Baer, the League's general counsel, says it is unlikely that the new Kansas law can withstand a constitutional challenge.
"It is the League's opinion that this provision does not meet the tests set forward in Reed or Outdoor Systems and, as such, is unconstitutional because it regulates placement and duration of a content-based sign purely upon the nature of the message being delivered," Baer wrote. "Until such time as HB 2183, Sec. 15, is repealed by the Legislature or found to be unconstitutional, it does remain law in Kansas."
The Kansas Legislative Budget Committee agreed Monday to solicit proposals from outside firms to conduct an examination of the state's operations and make recommendations about how it can be more cost effective.
Lawmakers set aside $3 million in the Legislature's own budget this year to pay for such a study. The committee on Monday looked over a draft Request for Proposals and laid out a schedule aimed at having a contractor selected by Oct. 1.
The action came just days after the Department of Revenue reported that tax collections in July fell about $3.7 million short of projections, and after Republican Gov. Sam Brownback ordered $62.7 million in budget adjustments to prevent the state general fund from sliding into the red this year.
Despite concerns expressed by Democrats on the panel, Republicans agreed that the contractor should have broad authority to examine activities of executive branch agencies, including the Department of Education and the state's 286 public school districts, as well as Medicaid. But the the legislative and judicial branches of government will not be part of the study.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, expressed concerns about how much authority a contractor would have to seek information and documents from school districts which, strictly speaking, are separate units of government. And Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison, expressed concern about certain Medicaid providers, including community mental health centers, many of which are managed by private businesses on contract with local governments.
But Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said K-12 education and Medicaid make up nearly 75 percent of all state spending, so it would be pointless to ignore those areas.
Senate budget chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, also noted that the Legislature is supposed to draft a new school funding formula in two years, and he said there may be outside contractors who have particular expertise in that area.
The panel hopes to have a contractor in place by Oct. 1 so that it will have one full fiscal quarter in which to work before delivering a preliminary report to the Legislature by the first of next year.
Milton Wolf fires back, again
Milton Wolf, the tea party candidate who tried unsuccessfully to defeat U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts for re-election last year, announced Monday that the Kansas Board of Healing Arts had ended its investigation of him without filing any charges.
But the most interesting thing about his statement was that it was released via email from his campaign email account, a possible indication that he may be eyeing a challenge against Kansas' other senator, Jerry Moran, in 2016.
“I am very pleased to announce that the Board finally closed Dr. Wolf’s inquiry without any findings of wrongdoing," Wolf's attorney Mark Stafford said in a statement. "This was proper based upon the facts. His reputation should be built upon his professional skills and his devotion to his patients. It’s frustrating that justice is often delayed, but in our system ultimately the truth must prevail.”
During the campaign last year, Wolf, a radiologist, was criticized for having posted gruesome x-ray images of gunshot victims on a Facebook page and making inappropriate comments about them. He apologized, but claimed the stories were part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the Roberts campaign.
The Board of Healing Arts was reportedly looking into whether Wolf had violated patient confidentiality and privacy laws.
There was no immediate word from the Board of Healing Arts about Wolf's case.
Quite a bit of fuss was made this week over a letter from House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs that some characterized as an apology over the way he handled the 2015 legislative session.
But Lawrence-area Democrats said they didn't take it that way, and a spokeswoman for Burroughs said it was certainly not meant as any kind of "mea culpa." Rather, they said, it was merely an attempt to get feedback about how the session went, and gather input about how members want to approach the 2016 session.
First, some context: Burroughs, who is from Kansas City, Kan., was in his first session as minority leader this year. He succeeded former Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence who stepped down last year in an unsuccessful bid for governor. (Democrats also lost five seats in the House in that same election.) The session lasted a record-breaking 113 days, and to say that Democrats were steamrolled in it might be an understatement.
By the time it all ended, the Republican-dominated Legislature had done away with the K-12 school finance formula and replaced it with block grants that locked in funding cuts for the next two years. It also passed new restrictions on abortion, dramatic restrictions on how welfare recipients can spend their benefits, and a tax-and-spending package that raised sales taxes while preserving Gov. Sam Brownback's controversial policy of eliminating income taxes for business owners.
So it was in that context that Burroughs mailed out what some Democrats described as an apology letter, but others say was a fairly typical post-session, postmortem letter to rally the troops and gear up for the next battle.
After some obligatory courtesies and thank-yous, Burroughs turns to topic of the topic at hand:
" While it would be easy to focus on our successes, I believe it is through reflection on the challenges we faced that we can grow and improve both as individuals and as a caucus. As your leader, it is my goal to make decisions in the best interest of our caucus, the Democratic Party, and the State of Kansas. If at any point in time I fell short of your expectations, I am sorry. I commit to continued improvement and I welcome your feedback. There are far too many battles ahead to be complacent."
Now, a little more context: Burroughs won the leadership post in a contested race against Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita. And it's no secret that the two men have different political styles and different management styles. Ward is known for being more aggressive and confrontational in criticizing conservative Republican policies; Burroughs is considered more conciliatory, although no less committed to Democratic Party ideals. Both had served in the past as assistant minority leaders.
The story about Burroughs' letter first broke on the Wichita Eagle's website, which characterized it as an apology letter by reporting: "The top Democrat in the Kansas House has sent a letter to his caucus apologizing if he fell short of their expectations and requesting their feedback ahead of the next session."
Ward was quoted heavily in that story, as were other Wichita-area Democrats. That story was picked up by the Associated Press, and AP's version of it was carried in the Journal-World with the headline, 'Top Democrat in Kansas House apologizes to caucus.
There were times during the session when Ward and others wanted to order roll-call votes on various issues, and to offer amendments — particularly about Medicaid expansion — that would have forced conservative Republicans to put their names on a "no" vote. Such tactics, routinely practiced by members on all sides, are commonly known as "postcard votes" because they make easy fodder for election-year postcards.
Burroughs, however, generally resisted the temptation, believing such tactics only would have alienated moderate Republicans, whom Democrats often need as allies, even though in the current Legislature all the Democrats and all the moderate Republicans put together still don't form a working majority.
But the idea that Burroughs' letter was an "apology letter" was not universally shared among other Democrats, particularly those from Lawrence.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, for example, who serves as the Democrats' caucus chair (meaning she leads caucus meetings whenever they get together to discuss strategy) wasn't sure what was being referred to when asked if she'd received the "apology letter."
"I received a letter, but I wouldn't call it an apology letter," she said. She added that all of the decisions about how Democrats would respond to the Republican agenda were run through the entire leadership team.
Rep. John Wilson also said he was surprised by the characterization. "No, I didn't see it as an apology letter," he said in an email.
Rep. Boog Highberger, who was serving his first session in the Legislature (he succeeded Davis in the 46th District) also declined to call it an apology. "I think it was an acknowledgement that we didn't all agree on every single thing," he said.
But he also conceded that Democrats could have been more confrontational with conservatives, at least on some issues.
"i think we should have pushed harder for Medicaid expansion," he said. "We could have pressed harder on a number of issues. But I give the minority leader some credit. There's a learning curve on every job."
There are currently 16 declared candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and Kansas GOP officials are sincerely wishing every last one of them the best of luck in the early primaries and caucuses.
That's because the more of them that stay in the race through Kansas' March 5 caucuses, the more money the Kansas GOP stands to make.
Kansas Republicans agreed at their midyear convention in Manhattan Saturday to charge candidates $15,000 each for the right to be on the caucus ballot.
Theoretically, all 16 are still in the race come March 5, something nobody really expects, that would generate $240,000 for the party. But even if there are five or six left, that's $75,000 to $90,000 flowing straight into the party's coffers, money it can use to promote the caucuses, beef up its voter databases and fund get-out-the-vote efforts.
It's one of the many significant differences between caucuses and primaries. If the state were to hold a primary election, candidates would either gather petition signatures or pay a fee to the state, which would go to offset the cost of holding an election.
But caucus systems are purely creatures of the parties themselves, and the parties are free, within certain limits, to set their own rules.
Kansas lawmakers this year repealed the statute that had called for the state to hold presidential primaries. It was a law that lawmakers routinely waived for the sake of budget savings. The last primary held here was in 1992.
Kansas Democrats, by contrast, have chosen not to go that route.
Kerry Gooch, the state party's new spokesman, said Democrats are charging only $1,000 for candidates to get on the caucus ballot.
Currently, there are only five Democrats actively seeking the nomination: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley; former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee; and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.
Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday named Sarah Shipman as his new secretary of administration, succeeding Jim Clark who retired earlier this month.
At the same time, he also expanded Budget Director Shawn Sullivan's role to include "identifying and implementing efficiencies across state government. Effective immediately, Sullivan’s title will be director of Budget and Business Processes, the governor's office said.
The Department of Administration is a powerful agency that often goes unnoticed. Besides managing the state's budget and spending on a day-to-day basis, it's also in charge of personnel management, purchasing, property management and the state's IT system.
Shipman has worked for the agency since 2011 and has been deputy secretary and chief counsel since 2014.
The expansion of Sullivan's role comes at a time when the state is facing increasing budget and cash-flow pressures in the wake of sweeping tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013. This year, amid a near-stalemate over cutting the budget and raising taxes, lawmakers passed a $6.4 billion spending plan while at the same time directing the administration to find $50 million in savings.
Brownback's press secretary, Eileen Hawley, said Sullivan's new role will be an ongoing function of that office, separate and apart from the directive to find $50 million in savings.
She said the administration expects to announce the $50 million in savings by the end of next week.
Having gotten a decent night's sleep after Tuesday's lengthy City Commission meeting, I now have to admit it's been kind of a treat the last couple of weeks pinch-hitting on the City Hall beat for our colleague (and now new boss) Chad Lawhorn.
Admittedly, though, that wasn't exactly what I was thinking at the time, when a debate over the placement of a cellphone tower in East Lawrence dragged on for about an hour and a half.
For political reporters, and probably just about everyone else, there is nothing quite so excruciating as a lengthy debate over zoning issues.
At their core, though, zoning battles are also one of the purest kinds of political conflict. And it's a type of conflict that doesn't often occur over here at the Statehouse, where debates often focus on abstract, ideological differences, and the real people who are affected by the decisions are rarely seen or heard from.
The legendary columnist Molly Ivins once described zoning battles as "the very guts of government, where we see the interests of one party come into conflict with the interests of another." I see them as clashes between two sacred, yet often diametrically opposing principles of the American government: individual rights vs. community rights.
Tuesday night, the battle was between the interests of Verizon Wireless, LLC, which wants to put up a 120-foot tower to improve its coverage in East Lawrence, and the owners of an adjoining parcel who worried that if the 120-foot tower ever fell down, it would crush their building, which houses Free State Brewing Company's bottling plant.
Also involved in the discussion were a number of neighborhood residents who simply don't want to look out their windows and see a giant cellphone tower. It's a viewpoint that highlights another contradiction in our political culture: the competing ideas of private property and public landscapes.
This battle in East Lawrence has been going on for a while. The first site Verizon proposed got rejected in December amid vehement opposition from nearby residents, resulting in a federal lawsuit. Although that lawsuit is still pending, Verizon came back in May to propose another site, on a largely undeveloped lot in an industrial area on Moodie Road.
The owner of that parcel, however, reportedly wants to keep future development options open, and so Verizon was asked to place the tower near a corner of the property, just a few feet from the north property line. Problem was, just on the other side of that property line sits a building that houses Free State Brewing Company's bottling plant.
So, while one property owner would enjoy all the benefits of rental income from the tower, the other property owner would bear substantial risk if the tower should ever fall down.
Here at the Kansas Statehouse, you hear a lot of impassioned debate about the sanctity of private property rights. In most cases, though, the debates are largely theoretical, and the contest is over which brand of governmental-powers ideology will win out.
The prevailing view in this building can be broadly described as "strong libertarian," something passed down in the state's political culture from the frontier days when Kansas was just a sparsely populated, agrarian state. The prevailing mindset is that government should not be in the business of telling individuals what they can or can't do with (or on) their own private property.
It's a belief system that works well out in farm country where someone's closest neighbor might live a mile or more down the road. There, if a man walks out of his house stark naked, toting a shotgun over his shoulder, just to go check his mail, the chances are slim that anyone will notice. And if he wants to put up a 100-foot windmill on his property and paint it an ugly color of pink, it's really nobody's business but his.
But rural libertarianism tends to run into problems in most urban communities, where walking naked in public and putting up ugly towers tend to upset the neighbors. Except maybe Topeka where the whole walking-naked-in-public issue is apparently still in kind of a gray area.
Urban communities tend to be governed by what might be called the Oliver Wendell Holmes theory of individual liberties: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."
That's the whole basis behind zoning laws, which exist for the expressed purpose of telling people what they can and can't do with their own property. Because in urban communities, what one person does with his or her own property can have a direct impact on the health and safety of others and the value of their property.
In the end, city commissioners struck what many hope will be a workable compromise: Verizon can put up its 120-foot tower somewhere on that piece of property. But it will have to be at least 130 feet away from the bottling plant, a distance that will still keep it largely out of view of most nearby residents.
It was an interesting experience Tuesday night covering the Lawrence City Commission, seeing firsthand how the politics and policies of state and local government intersect.
The big news in local government this time of year is putting together their budgets for the upcoming year. And much of what they're confronted with this year is a direct result of legislation passed at the Statehouse.
For local governments, there are two overriding issues driving their decisions on budgets and whether to raise local property taxes: a state mandate for them to contribute more toward their employees' retirement funds; and a looming property tax lid that, beginning in 2018, will generally prevent them from increasing property tax revenue beyond the rate of inflation.
In many cases, those two mandates are at odds with one another. In Lawrence, city officials say it's impossible to keep up with the rising cost of government — which they say includes offering competitive wages to their employees — without additional revenue. Elected commissioners, for their part, say they want to look for other solutions like tapping into special revenue funds or spending down reserves.
Over the long haul, however, the only other significant source of revenue cities and counties have is the local sales tax. So the big question is whether they can depend on growth in retail sales in their communities to fill in the gaps that can't be filled with property taxes.
And that's where state politics comes in. Because in Topeka, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-led Legislature have made a policy choice to slash income taxes, with an eye toward eliminating them altogether in the future, and to shift the state's reliance onto "consumption" taxes like retail sales, alcohol and tobacco. This year, they raised the state sales tax rate to 6.5 percent and added 50 cents a pack onto the cost of cigarettes.
Much of this is based on the economic theories of Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era economist made famous for his theory known as the Laffer Curve. It basically says that in setting tax rates, particularly on income tax, there is a point of diminishing returns, where increasing the rates actually produces less revenue.
On paper, it looks simple. A zero percent tax rate would produce zero revenue. But so too would a 100 percent tax rate because there would no longer be an incentive to work for income if 100 percent of the income would be taken in taxes. At some point between zero and 100 percent, there is a "tipping point" of sorts that makes raising tax rates counterproductive.
This is the theory behind the idea now popular in Topeka that says cutting, or even eliminating, income taxes will spur economic growth. Because taxing income is a tax on productivity, and the more you tax it, the less of it you'll get.
The burning question now lurking in the back of people's minds at city halls and county courthouses across Kansas is whether the state, by shifting its own revenue flow away from income taxes, has now broached the Laffer Curve tipping point on sales taxes.
In parts of Lawrence, where consumers pay sales tax to the state, city, county and a special transportation development district, the combined sales tax rate is now just over 10 percent. The worry in some corners is that the combined rate may now be high enough that it will actually suppress consumer spending, or at least drive that spending toward some neighboring community where the tax rate is lower.
When it comes to groceries and eating out, economists say, consumers have a way of absorbing higher costs — eating chicken instead of beef; buying generic products instead of name brands; or hitting the drive-thru window instead of a sit-down restaurant — to keep their total food expenses in line.
But when it comes to big-ticket purchases like new furniture or appliances, computers, or even back-to-school shopping, consumers can easily be lured a few miles — or counties, or a state line — away if the savings can justify the travel expense.
Bryan Kidney, the city's finance director, said Tuesday that the proposed budget for next year is built on an assumption of 3 percent growth in sales tax revenues next year. But that estimate was made before the Legislature raised the state rate. He's not yet convinced that the higher sales tax rate will suppress consumer spending. He's never seen it happen yet, but says it's worth keeping an eye on.
But some on the City Commission, including Mayor Jeremy Farmer, say they are less sanguine about the prospects. "We don't know the answer to those questions. There's a lot of things that could negatively impact us," he said Tuesday night.
Interim city manager Diane Stoddard reported Tuesday that sales tax receipts from mid-February through mid-March were down about $33,000 from the same period last year, a reflection of lower-than-expected retail activity nationwide during that time. Key indicators of how the state's higher sales tax rate is affecting cities and counties will come later this year, during the back-to-school shopping season later this summer, and the holiday shopping season in November and December.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt joined eight other states in filing a federal lawsuit Tuesday that seeks to block the Environmental Protection Agency from extending clean water regulations into small ponds and tributaries.
“Congress never intended for the federal government to regulate ditches or farm ponds,” Schmidt said in a statement released Tuesday. “This regulation grossly exceeds the authority granted to federal agencies by the Clean Water Act – authority that rightfully belongs to the states and that is limited by private property rights protected by the Constitution.”
The new rules, published in the Federal Register Monday, clarifiy the definition of "waters of the United States," which are subject to regulation by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The rules are set to take effect Aug. 28.
Traditionally, waters of the United States have included "navigable" waters that cross state lines or are used in interstate commerce. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that many upstream waters and tributaries must also be regulated because they have a significant impact on downstream waters. The standard is whether there is a "significant nexus" with those downstream waters.
For its part, the EPA denies that the new rules impose any new regulatory hardship and it says they are merely a new interpretation of existing standards, based on "science, Supreme Court decisions ... and the agencies’ experience and technical expertise."
"This rule not only maintains current statutory exemptions, it expands regulatory exclusions from the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ to make it clear that this rule does not add any additional permitting requirements on agriculture," the agency's public notice states.
The other states involved in the suit are Georgia, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has been eagerly sought by reporters this week for comments on major court cases in which he came out on the losing end. But those requests generally went unanswered, until late Friday afternoon.
“We are reviewing the past two days’ opinions internally and with our various clients to assess next steps," Schmidt said. "Fortunately, tomorrow (Saturday) starts a weekend, and the courts should be done at least for this week with issuing decisions.”
As the state's attorney general, Schmidt is responsible for defending the state and its laws whenever they are challenged in court. In recent months, that has included:
• Defending the state's ban on same-sex marriage against a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties union.
• Defending the state's new ban on an abortion procedure known as "dilation and evacuation," or D&E, which anti-abortion activists now call "dismemberment abortion," in the face of a lawsuit by an abortion rights group.
• And defending the state's school finance system, including a major overhaul made just a few months ago, against a lawsuit filed by several school districts.
Along the way, Schmidt also has intervened as a "friend of the court" in federal cases challenging portions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, although his two-sentence response Friday wasn't specifically aimed at the health care decision.
On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the key provision of Obamacare that Schmidt's office had challenged. And that same day, a Shawnee County district judge issued an injunction against enforcing the state's new abortion ban.
Then on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow, declaring state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and giving gay couples the right to marry in all 50 states.
And finally Friday, a three-judge panel flatly declared the state's school funding mechanism a violation of the Kansas Constitution.
People in Kansas and other states that do not operate their own health insurance market exchanges can continue to receive federal subsidies to buy policies on the federal exchange, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 6-3 decision, the court rejected a challenge by plaintiffs who argued that, as written, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," only allows subsidies to be paid for people who buy policies on state-based exchanges.
The ruling was good news for the nearly 70,000 Kansans, including nearly 5,000 in Douglas County, who have received federal subsidies to buy health insurance in the two years since the law took effect.
But it was a setback to critics of the health care law who hoped that a decision striking down the subsidies would be a death blow to the program that they have characterized as a federal "takeover" of the nation's health care system.
The Kansas Senate is expected to take up a tax bill Friday which, if it passes, could bring the 2015 legislative session to a close on its record-setting 113th day. But the bill falls far short of actually balancing the state budget, analysts say.
The House, after working through the night and into the early hours of the morning, finally passed the Senate's tax plan, along with a "trailer" bill that changes some parts of the Senate bill.
That complicated procedure was necessary because Senate Republican leaders have refused to put a second tax bill on the floor.
Combined, the two bills would raise the state sales tax to 6.5 percent and they would slow down scheduled cuts in individual income tax rates. They also include a 50-cent per pack increase in cigarette taxes and a variety of other measures expected to generate $384.4 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Even with that, House Taxation Committee chairman Marvin Kleeb of Overland Park said, Gov. Sam Brownback would have to cut $30-$50 million out of the budget that passed earlier this month.
But some lawmakers say the cuts will have to be worse than that because they seriously doubt estimates of how much money certain provisions will actually bring in. Among them are:
• A tax amnesty program that would waive interest and penalties for taxpayers who pay up their past-due tax accounts. That's supposed to bring in $30 million next year. But critics say unless the Department of Revenue hires more staff and devotes resources to collecting on those accounts, the amnesty program is likely to fall short.
• A tax on "guaranteed payments" to business partners — a contractual arrangement where partners are guaranteed certain payments regardless of the profit or loss of the business — is expected to bring in $23.7 million. But critics say it would be easy for those businesses to reorganize their structure or change the contracts in order to shield those payments from state taxes.
• And the increase in sales tax, which the bill would make effective July 1, is projected to bring in $164 million. By law, however, retailers are entitled to 30 days notice before sales tax rates can change. And because the session has dragged into the middle of June, Senate tax committee chairman Les Donovan of Wichita said, retailers aren't legally obligated to charge the tax starting July 1, although he believes many will.
Meanwhile, internet and mail order retailers may not be obligated to charge the tax until Oct. 1 because, under a multi-state "streamlined sales tax" agreement, not only do states have to give 30 days notice, they also are only supposed to change tax rates on the first day of a calendar quarter.
The Senate is expected to start debating the second bill at 2 p.m. Friday. If it passes, both the underlying tax bill and the "trailer" bill will go to the governor and lawmakers will adjourn.
But if it fails to pass the Senate — and Donovan says some Senate Republicans will have serious concerns about it — the tax and budget debate will go back to square one.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback made an impassioned plea Thursday for House and Senate Republicans to reach agreement on a plan to balance the budget before his administration will be forced to take drastic actions.
Those range from vetoing the budget bill lawmakers have already passed, which would force at least a partial shutdown of state government starting July 1; using his line-item veto authority to strike $350 million to $400 million out of the budget; or signing the budget and waiting until July 1 to make allotment cuts to bring the budget into balance.
"We're at Thursday. By Monday you have to come up with something, or then I have to start executing one of these options I have in front of me," Brownback said during a rare joint caucus meeting of House and Senate Republicans. "So you don't have a whole ton of time here to negotiate through a bunch of different policy options in front of you."
The House and Senate so far have been unable to agree on a revenue package to raise the roughly $400 million needed to fund the budget. The House debated long into the night Wednesday, carrying over into Thursday morning, before defeating a Senate-passed plan.
Secretary of Administration Jim Clark said earlier in the meeting that his agency needs at least two weeks to re-program state computer systems with information based on the new budget.
Further, both he and Budget Director Shawn Sullivan warned that without a balanced budget in place, credit rating agencies will almost certainly downgrade the state's bond rating, which would likely raise interest rates on bonds the state plans to issue in the new fiscal year.
Those include $312 million for Regents universities, $750 million for the Kansas Department of Transportation and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds to shore up the troubled Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
Brownback said he cannot issue line-item vetoes for anything in the K-12 education budget or the judiciary budget because those were passed and approved separately earlier in the session.
He said the amount of money he would need to cut would be roughly equal to the combined state funding for all six Regents universities.
House and Senate tax negotiators were scheduled to meet again at 7 p.m. One possibility being discussed is for the House to reconsider its action on the tax bill it defeated earlier in the day. But some lawmakers want the conference committee to submit a different plan, possibly including a tax on business income that is currently exempt from state taxes.
Several key Kansas lawmakers were clearly frustrated Thursday morning after the House defeated a $403 million tax bill to balance the budget, and some said openly they don't know what to do next.
Among them was Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, who was among a minority of House members voting for the tax bill until the very end, even though he strongly opposed its policy of raising income taxes instead of business taxes.
The final vote in the House was 21-94. The 10 members who were absent, but who presumably were being contacted to return and cast a vote, never showed up.
All four House members from Lawrence voted against the bill: Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard; Boog Highberger and John Wilson; and Republican Rep. Tom Sloan.
The 10 absent members were: Reps. Carolyn Bridges (D-Wichita); Sydney Carlin (D-Manhattan); J.R. Claeys (R-Salina); Mario Goico (R-Wichita); Amanda Grosserode (R-Lenexa); Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee); Roderick Houston (D-Wichita); Mike Kiegerl (R-Olathe); Annie Tietze (D-Topeka); and Ed Trimmer (D-Winfield).
"Our group stood in the gap, trying to prevent a financial calamity for this state," Hutton said after the House vote. "The rest of this House stood down. The Democrats, the moderates and the hard-core conservatives all stood down while we stood for Kansas."
Hutton has been a leader among the group of Republicans who have wanted to re-impose some level of income tax on more than 330,000 business owners whose profits from business operations have been exempt from income tax since 2012. But Hutton said he has given up trying to convince Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to accept such a tax plan.
"I've talked to him (Brownback) till I'm blue in the face," Hutton said. "It's not going to be me anymore. He's heard from me. I don't know who that is that he's going to listen to, because I can tell you, everybody else has told him the same thing, and he won't move."
The House held the roll open on the Senate's tax bill more than two hours Wednesday night. The chamber then had to break for the night because of a new rule that prohibits the House from meeting between midnight and 8 a.m. They resumed Thursday morning, with the roll still open, but finally broke around 10:15 a.m., long after it had become clear there were not enough votes in the House to pass the bill.
Senate tax committee chairman Les Donovan, also of Wichita, was disappointed when he heard the news.
"Well, it looks like the obstructionists, if you want to call them that, had their way, it looks like," Donovan said. "That's a shame."
"The problem is, they (the House) don't have a clear-cut on what they want to do, it doesn't look like," he said. "They've got so many people that want to go one way, and so many people that want to go the other way."
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, told Donovan it may be time for the Senate to vote on a tax plan that Donovan proposed several days ago, but which never made it to the Senate floor. It would raise about $200 million in new revenue through cigarette taxes and a few other noncontroversial measures. That would leave it to Brownback to make additional cuts to balance the budget.
But Senate Vice President Jeff King of Independence said late Wednesday night that he believes the Legislature has a duty to pass a balanced budget plan.
"I think there are dire consequences that none of us want to see happen if we aren’t able to get a tax plan approved this month, and hopefully in the very, very near future," King said.
"If we are unable to find a solution, if the House is unable to pass this measure (Thursday), and unable to find another solution, then the governor would have to choose between allotments, line-item vetoes and special sessions," King said.
The House was tentatively scheduled to come back into session around 2 p.m. Another tax conference committee meeting was tentatively set for 6 p.m.
House tax committee chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park said he would try in the meantime to survey House members to see which direction they want to go.