Entries from blogs tagged with “Kansas government”

Marijuana bill to conference committee; school accounting bill dies; bill raising auto insurance minimums advances

The Kansas House apparently has a lot of questions about what the Senate did to the House's marijuana bill and voted Friday to request a conference committee.

The original bill, which passed the House last year, would lower the penalties for first- and second-time charges of marijuana possession. That was intended to free up bed space in the state's already-overcrowded prisons, thus saving the state upwards of $1 million a year.

But it also included provisions legalizing the medical use of hemp oil to treat certain seizure disorders and authorizing the Kansas Department of Agriculture to research industrial uses of hemp.

Over in the Senate, though, the medical and agricultural hemp provisions got stricken out and replaced with a provision, pushed by Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, calling for mandatory prison sentences for certain aggravated burglary charges. Among other things, that would effectively cancel out all of the bed space and financial savings from lowering marijuana possession charges.

Friday, the bill came back to the House on a motion to concur or nonconcur with what the Senate had done. But both the chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Boog Highberger of Lawrence, said those were some pretty major changes to their bill, and they want to talk about it some more.

It probably won't be the only sentencing bill on which the House and Senate have different positions. What often happens in the Legislature is to wait until the final weeks of the session when the conference committee has a stack of bills to deal with, and then begin horse-trading with different elements from many different bills, which will then get bundled together into a single "omnibus" Corrections and Juvenile Justice bill.

That practice, by the way, has been a particular bone of contention for Rubin, who has tried, mostly without success, in the past to put strict limits into the House rules about how many different bills can be bundled together in conference reports.

Uniform accounting and reporting dies

Conservatives in the House who have been pushing for a law to make school districts produce more understandable financial reports suffered a setback in the House when their bill to require uniform accounting and reporting systems failed on final action, 58-61.

That had been one of the recommendations of Gov. Sam Brownback's task force on school efficiency, which issued its report in 2013, and the bill calling for such a system passed the Senate in 2015. Groups including the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Authority (whose president Dave Trabert served on the efficiency task force) argued that having a uniform accounting and reporting system would make it easier to compare finances and spending habits across districts to determine who's being more efficient with their money and who's being more wasteful.

They also argued that having a single, uniform accounting and reporting system might save districts, and the state, some money on software costs.

The bill, however, went further and would have required districts to publish on their websites the aggregate annual compensation for their employees as well as the names and salary information of their 10 highest-paid employees, or top three employees in the case of very small districts.

But a lot of school officials pushed back, arguing first that the Kansas State Department of Education already has a standard form for reporting top-line, summary data. But they all have individual systems for keeping track of more detailed information because the 286 districts all do things differently.

Auto insurance coverage

Drivers who carry only the minimum required liability insurance in Kansas would have to carry a little bit more under a bill that passed out of the House Friday, 116-2.

Since the 1980s, Kansas has required drivers to carry only $10,000 worth of coverage for property damage. But with the average cost of new cars today now well over $30,000 — and even the cheapest new car on the road pricing at more than $12,000 — there is now general agreement that the Kansas coverage minimum just wasn't enough.

The bill does not, however, raise the minimum coverage limit for bodily injuries, which is the cost of medical care if you cause an accident that injures someone else, despite the massive increases in health care costs that have occurred since the 1980s. That limit now stands at $25,000 per person, or $50,000 total.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who chairs the Insurance Committee, said Kansas is still above average among states for injury coverage and raising the limit would have had a bigger impact on the price of an insurance policy, which would likely result in having more uninsured drivers on the road.

He also said that although there are many horror stories about people who've been severely injured in accidents, overall, the vast majority of injury accidents result in relatively minor injuries.

That bill now goes to the Senate.

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Holland introduces government reform bills

State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, is proposing a bill that would, for the first time in Kansas, require contract lobbyists to disclose how much they charge their clients who hire them to lobby.

That was one of five government reform bills that Holland introduced Tuesday in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.

Currently, lobbyists who try to influence legislation in the Kansas Statehouse file reports disclosing how much they spend buying food, drinks and entertainment for individual legislators. Those reports, however, have been criticized for showing only part of the picture because they do not include the cost of food and beverages provided at "buffet-style" events where lobbyists invite entire committees, caucuses or even the entire Legislature to attend.

But some open-government advocates have long argued that the "wining and dining" of legislators is only a small part of the overall picture. The real money, they say, is in the amount of money that businesses, associations and other interest groups spend on the lobbyists themselves, just to have a presence in the building.

"My bill requires all contract lobbyists to divulge their clients and how much they’re getting paid by them," Holland said Tuesday.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, at least nine other states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire and New Jersey — require at least some disclosure by contract lobbyists about how much they are charging their clients, or how much the principals of those firms pay their employees to lobby.

Other bills Holland introduced Tuesday include:

• Banning all purchases of food and drink for individual legislators, allowing such purchases only if they are provided to the entire Legislature, and prohibiting gifts of sports or entertainment tickets altogether.

• Prohibiting the three managed care organizations that run the state's privatized Medicaid system, known as KanCare, from making any political contributions to legislators who serve on the KanCare Oversight Committee.

• Expanding the Kansas Open Records Act to include job applications from anyone seeking an appointment to a public position from the governor.

• Establishing an independent, nonpartisan commission to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries after each federal census.

Holland said the unifying theme behind each of the proposals is "good government, and open government."

"That’s why you’re seeing revolt on both sides of the political spectrum," he said. "People realize the system is rigged for special interests, well monied, well connected. That’s how we get the people’s trust back."

There was no immediate word Tuesday about whether any of the bills will receive a committee hearing this year.

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Budget, school consolidation, juvenile justice ahead for Kansas lawmakers

After three relatively quiet weeks to start off the session, Kansas lawmakers will start getting down to serious business on Monday with mid-year budget cuts, school funding changes and a massive overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system leading the agenda.

First up is Gov. Sam Brownback's plan for closing the potential shortfall in the current fiscal year's budget. Much of that plan was announced in November when new revenue estimates were released showing the seriousness of the problem, but many of the elements require legislative approval.

Overall, the plan calls for $30 million in direct spending cuts from the state general fund, plus sweeping money out of other funds into the general fund in order to prevent the state from ending the year on June 30 with a negative balance.

But the size of the budget hole could change as early as Monday afternoon when the Department of Revenue releases its report on tax collections for the month of January. Analysts will be paying close attention to the sales tax figures because January's report should reflect sales taxes that retailers collected and remitted to the state over the entire holiday shopping season.

After lawmakers raised the state sales tax rate to 6.5 percent last year, the question many are asking is whether that increase actually generated more revenue or simply drove consumers to shop in border states, or even online.

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee plans to work through bills that could radically change the way public schools are organized and financed. Although none of them constitute a new school funding "formula," which lawmakers will have to do either this year or next, the three bills up for discussion this week still would have profound effects on school funding for years to come.

The first, House Bill 2504, would force the consolidation of more than half of the state's school districts by establishing singular, countywide districts in counties with 10,000 or fewer students. And in larger counties, including Douglas County, it would require all remaining districts to have no fewer than 1,500 students.

That would force the Baldwin City school district to be combined into either the Lawrence or Eudora districts. And it would force all six districts in Jefferson County to be merged into one.

But the bill does not specify what would happen to all of the boards of education in the merged districts. Education groups like the Kansas Association of School Boards are already raising alarm bells about "one-person-one-vote" problems if a single, central administration is placed in charge of administering schools that answer to multiple boards in which board members are elected from districts of vastly different sizes.

Also on the Education Committee's schedule this week is a bill that would set up a special legislative committee that would decide which school bond issues will be eligible for state funding aid, and a bill to expand a program that offers tax credits for contribution to private and parochial school scholarship funds.

On the Senate side of the rotunda, the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee will spend most of the week conducting hearings on a massive overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said the overall aim of the bill is to reduce the number of youth offenders who are incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities by putting more emphasis on community corrections programs that would let offenders remain in their homes and in school. But he said there are a lot of moving parts to the 110-page bill that will take many days of testimony and debate in both chambers.

Other issues up for debate in legislative committees this week include:

Additional restrictions on welfare benefits, including a provision to monitor whether any welfare recipients have received more than $10,000 in lottery winnings. Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, 1:30 p.m. Monday.

• A bill that could subject teachers to criminal prosecution if they provide or display sexually explicit material deemed harmful to minors. The bill passed the Kansas Senate last year. It will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

• Final action in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday on a bill requiring school districts to provide access to their facilities by air gun organizations; and a constitutional amendment to guarantee the public's right to hunt, fish and trap.

• A bill to prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances or resolutions declaring themselves "sanctuary cities" to prevent detention or deportation of undocumented immigrants. House Judiciary Committee, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

• And a bill lowering the minimum age for obtaining a concealed carry permit to 18. House Federal and State Affairs Committee, 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

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Constitutional amendment to protect hunting, fishing and trapping rights could have far-reaching consequences

A proposed constitutional amendment is pending in the Kansas House that would guarantee the public's right to engage in hunting, fishing and trapping.

It's a proposal that, at first blush, seems like a natural fit for a state like Kansas, where such outdoor activities are so ingrained in the culture that they feel like constitutional rights anyway. But some officials are warning that it could have far-reaching consequences that could put all of the state's hunting and fishing regulations under heightened scrutiny by the courts.

The amendment would insert the following language into the Bill of Rights of the Kansas Constitution:

Right of public to hunt, fish and trap wildlife. The people have the right to hunt, fish and trap, including by the use of traditional methods, subject to laws and regulations that promote wildlife conservation and management and that preserve the future of hunting and fishing. Public hunting and fishing shall be a preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife. This section shall not be construed to modify any provision of law relating to trespass, property rights or water resources.

The resolution was sponsored last year by Reps. Adam Lusker, D-Frontenac, and Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, who is no longer in the Legislature after resigning last year to take a job as a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee heard two days of testimony on the amendment this week.

Mike Murray, a lobbyist for the Kansas Rifle Association, said the amendment is needed because the right of people to hunt, fish and trap is currently threatened by "animal rights groups, off-road vehicle groups, urbanization and decreasing habitat."

But Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, who said she supports hunting and fishing rights, questioned whether the state should put language in its constitution taking sides on those issues.

"This was to offset other groups who are anti-hunting," she said. "Why should we protect their (hunters') rights as opposed to rights of others who feel strongly enough to come together to oppose hunting?"

And while the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism did not oppose the amendment, its general counsel, Chris Tymeson, said there have been concerns about putting such a right into the constitution because it could subject any laws or regulations that restrict hunting, fishing and trapping rights to what the courts call "strict scrutiny."

In short, that means the government has to show it has a "compelling state interest" in taking any action that restricts the right, and that the policy is "narrowly tailored" to achieve the government's objective.

Rep. Dick Jones, R-Topeka, said he had concerns about any amendment that would weaken the state's authority to regulate hunting and manage wildlife.

"The greatest threat to conservation worldwide is poaching," Jones said. "We have laws to try and prevent that, but it's extremely difficult. The prohibitions the state puts up have proven inadequate because of the overwhelming impact of poaching."

Tietze also asked how that would affect the state's ability to protect threatened or endangered species in Kansas, although Tymeson said he does not think the amendment would greatly interfere with that.

Tymeson said he does not think the amendment would create "a litigation machine." But he said that when putting new language into the constitution, lawmakers should think about what kinds of issues the state may be confronted with 50 years from now.

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Committee to vote on microbreweries; Highberger proposes changing Columbus Day to ‘Indigenous Peoples Day’

A House committee may vote Wednesday on whether to recommend a bill that would double the production limit for microbreweries in Kansas to 60,000 barrels a year.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee heard testimony on that bill last week. It was requested primarily by Manhattan-based Tallgrass Brewery, which expects to hit the current production limit of 30,000 barrels by the middle of next year.

Committee chairwoman Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Wichita, also announced that the panel could vote on a related bill that would allow microbreweries to produce hard cider, an increasingly popular beverage made from the fermentation of fruit, not grain, which technically makes it a form of wine.

Highberger bill would rename Columbus Day

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, introduced a bill Tuesday calling on the state to follow in the footsteps of Lawrence and several other U.S. cities by officially renaming Columbus Day as "Indigenous Peoples Day" in Kansas.

“For too long there has been a disengagement and lack of consideration of the history of our Native American communities and the role they have played in our current culture,” Highberger said. “It’s time to show our neighbors that we appreciate not just one man and his explorations, but all indigenous peoples we have a shared history with.”

For the state of Kansas, the change would be largely symbolic since Columbus Day is no longer one of the eight official state holidays. Those are New Year's Day; Martin Luther King Jr. Day; Memorial Day; Independence Day; Labor Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving Day (which is actually two days); and Christmas Day.

For many decades, Columbus Day was a day that recognized the establishment of European civilization in the Western hemisphere. It has also been a traditional day of ethnic celebration for the Italian-American community. But in recent years, it's been the target of criticism from those who argue that it ignores the indigenous civilizations that were already here at the time, many of which were massacred or driven to near-extinction in the centuries that followed.

Highberger said renaming the day would be a gesture to recognize the Native American communities "that have suffered painful histories and highlight their many contributions to our culture."

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Kansas GOP convention won’t be on Kansas Day this year

For the first time in almost anyone's memory, the Kansas Republican Party will not hold its annual state convention over Kansas Day weekend this year.

Instead, it'll be about a month later, the weekend of Feb. 19-20, this year in Overland Park.

"This has been a discussion for several years of trying to come up with the most ideal time for our annual meetings," said GOP state party chairman Kelly Arnold. "We now rotate them from congressional districts every year. We changed our bylaws to give us some flexible time to have it. But the largest reason is too many events are scheduled for Kansas Day weekend and I am trying to help accommodate all the groups so they can attend all events."

People who weren't born and raised in Kansas, or who haven't lived here very long, can be forgiven (this time) for not knowing that Jan. 29 — this coming weekend — is the state's official birthday, marking the day in 1861 when the state was officially admitted to the union.

And the fact that the GOP always held its state convention that weekend has long been a sore spot for non-Republicans in the state who are sensitive to the fact that Kansas Day is a celebration for the whole state, not just the Republicans who, admittedly, have dominated the state's political system ever since.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that one of the biggest Kansas Day events, the Native Sons and Daughters Banquet, was often held at the same hotel and convention center as the GOP convention.

This year in particular, moving the convention to late February has another advantage. It places the convention just two weeks before the state's March 5 presidential caucuses. Democrats are holding their convention Feb. 26-27, just one week out from the caucuses.

That could add a little more excitement to both events. All told, 11 Republicans have signed up to be on the GOP ballot, and four candidates will be on the Democrats' caucus ballot.

So far, none of those candidates has booked time to appear at either event, but depending on how close the races still are at that point, the possibility of actual candidate appearances in Kansas shouldn't be ruled out.

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Marijuana bill set for more discussion; bill to allow pellet guns at schools on tap; big ticket issues at Statehouse slow to get moving

A few hot-button issues will come to the forefront as Kansas lawmakers head into Week 3 of the 2016 session.

First up will be a bill to reform marijuana laws. The Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee is set to take final action on a bill that would lower the penalties for first and second time possession charges; allow for the medical use of hemp oil to treat certain seizure disorders; and authorize the Kansas Department of Agriculture to research industrial uses of hemp.

That bill passed the House last year. An affirmative vote Tuesday would send it to the full Senate for consideration.

That may be the closest thing to measurable action that happens in the Statehouse this week as the 2016 session continues to get off to a rather slow start. The big issues that will make headlines later - the budget; taxes; school finance; and what, if anything, to do about the state's mental hospitals - are still the subject of informational hearings in which lawmakers are still gathering information.

In addition, two Senate committees plan to get briefings this week on a couple of the more high profile judicial decisions that have been handed down recently.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will review the Kansas Supreme Court's recent decision in Solomon vs. Kansas, in which the court said lawmakers violated the separation of powers doctrine by passing a bill that changes the way chief judges in district courts are selected.

Already, whenever that case has been mentioned, a few conservatives have commented aloud that they hope the Supreme Court keeps that separation of powers doctrine in mind when they consider other cases - a not-so-subtle reference to the ongoing school finance lawsuit, in which plaintiffs are seeking a court order for lawmakers to appropriate more money for public schools.

Also on Thursday, the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee will review the current status of the death penalty cases against Jonathan and Reginald Carr, two brothers convicted and condemned for a gruesome quadruple homicide in Wichita in December 2000.

In 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court vacated their death sentences, igniting a political firestorm that nearly resulted in two justices not being retained for another term. But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, reversed the Kansas court and remanded the case back for further proceedings.

Meanwhile, lawmakers do plan to debate a couple of gun bills that are sure to stir controversy. Around the same time the Senate panel is voting on the marijuana bill, the House Federal and State Affairs Committee will open a hearing on a bill authorizing the possession of air guns on school property.

That would be the low-power BB and pellet guns typically used by youngsters for target practice and basic gun safety training.

House Bill 2468 would prohibit school districts from adopting policies that ban organizations from conducting activities in school that involve the use of air guns. Nor could they prohibit students who are members of those organizations from possessing an air gun at school.

On Thursday, meanwhile, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee will conduct a hearing on Senate Bill 331, the "Kansas Firearms Industry Nondiscrimination Act." It would make it unlawful for any person or business to refuse to provide goods or services to anyone solely because they are a federally licensed firearms dealer.

That bill, by the way, does not contain a "religious freedom" exception.

Another somewhat peculiar bill is coming up Wednesday in the House Elections Committee. It would change the way ballots are designed by removing the name of the city in which candidates for state offices reside.

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Video: Near-empty chambers on ‘pro forma’ days, but lawmakers still get paid

The chambers of the Kansas House and Senate were nearly empty Friday, with only a handful of legislators showing up for what are called "pro forma" sessions.

Those are sessions that don't require a quorum to be present, and the only action besides gaveling in and gaveling out is to announce the introduction of new bills or read other announcements into the journal.

And it has become a somewhat common practice in the Kansas Legislature, especially on Fridays, because it allows those who have to travel a great distance to get home and still have a full weekend.

But it is also somewhat controversial because, even though most lawmakers are not present, and little if any work gets done, it still counts as a legislative day, and thus lawmakers receive their daily salary of $88.66, plus their subsistence allowance of $109 per day for expenses such as meals and lodging.

Under state law, lawmakers receive that amount each calendar day of the session except, "during any period in which the Legislature is adjourned for more than two days, Sundays excepted."

At the end of the first week of the session, lawmakers took off Friday, thus turning a three-day weekend into four days because of the Martin Luther King Day holiday. And by taking off this Friday, they turned this week into a three-day work week.

A small number of legislators did show up Friday for a meeting of the KanCare Oversight Committee, the only committee that met Friday.

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Marijuana bill gets hearing; K-12 education, KanCare, state hospitals also in focus for Week 2

It's probably a safe bet that Kansas won't join Colorado and Washington state in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, at least not anytime soon. But a Senate committee will consider a bill this week that would reduce the penalties for first and second time possession. And it would take baby steps in the direction of allowing certain medical uses of a cannabis derivative.

House Bill 2049 passed the House in May last year, 81-36. But it came so late in the session that the Senate ran out of time to consider it, and so held it over until the 2016 session.

The bill would do three things: reclassify first and second possession offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies; authorize the Kansas Department of Agriculture to conduct research into industrial hemp production; and allow the use of hemp oil as a treatment for certain kinds of seizure disorders.

The hemp oil provision was added as an amendment during floor debate in the House last year by Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence.

Hemp oil is derived from the seed of the plant and does not contain THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. But some studies have shown that it can reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in people with epilepsy.

A fiscal analysis conducted last year estimated that passage of the bill would eventually reduce the state's prison population by 75 beds, saving the state a little more than $1 million a year.

The Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee has scheduled hearings on the bill Wednesday and Thursday this week.

K-12 education

Issues around K-12 education in Kansas will be the topic of discussion in multiple hearings this week, starting bright and early Tuesday morning when the special K12 Student Success Committee meets to finalize its report to the full Legislature.

That's the panel established last year when lawmakers repealed the old per-pupil funding formula and replaced it for two years with a system of block grants. Although it wasn't charged with devising a new formula, it was told to begin laying the groundwork for a new funding mechanism to be based on student outcomes, rather than a cost-driven formula, in line with a 2014 ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, offered his own version of a draft report earlier this month. But the panel tabled that document and sent it to the Legislative Research Department for redrafting.

Still, it is widely expected that the final draft will contain many of the same recommendations, including taking a whole new look at the annual state assessments in reading and math; overhauling the way the state provides extra funding for students "at risk" of failing or dropping out; and putting tighter controls on the ability of local school districts to issue bonds, the repayments of which are partially subsidized by the state.

Later in the day, Education Commissioner Randy Watson will give a briefing on the Department of Education's new "vision" for public education in Kansas. Speaking to the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, he will likely focus on things that business and industry leaders said were important during a series of town hall meetings last year — namely, more focus on "soft skills" such as work habits, teamwork, communication and interpersonal skills.

Meanwhile, the House Education Budget Committee has scheduled three days of meetings this week, Tuesday through Thursday, although agendas for those meetings were not yet available Monday afternoon.

That panel serves as a kind of subcommittee for the full House Appropriations panel. Its main job is to recommend funding levels for both K-12 and higher education.

KanCare and state hospitals

Officials from Lawrence Memorial Hospital will be back before the KanCare Oversight Committee on Friday, presumably with claims and billing information to support their allegation that the three private companies now in charge of managing the state's Medicaid program have been systematically denying legitimate claims and making the appeals process unnecessarily cumbersome.

LMH lodged those complaints in December, although all three KanCare contractors denied engaging in such practices.

In other health care-related issues, conditions at Osawatomie State Hospital will be the subject of a joint meeting Thursday of the House and Senate health committees where Tim Keck, interim secretary of the Department for Aging and Disability Services, will provide an update.

The psychiatric hospital in Miami County lost its certification to receive Medicare funding last year after auditors from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited it for "systemic failure to supervise the provision of care, to perform required safety checks and to protect suicidal patients from hanging risks," which "placed all patients receiving services at risk for harm."

Tuesday marks the start of the second week of the 2016 session, a week that was shortened due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday on Monday.

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Kansas Democrats divided over 2016 legislative strategy

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, left, and House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City join their other caucus members in announcing their priorities for the 2016 session.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, left, and House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City join their other caucus members in announcing their priorities for the 2016 session. by Peter Hancock

A rift was exposed this week within the ranks of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses after a news conference Thursday in which their respective leaders laid out a list of "core values" they plan to fight for this year, but virtually no specific proposals to go along with them.

The split, which also erupted last year, is most apparent on the House side, where some members, led by Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, argue it's Republicans' job to introduce bills and put forth proposals that are best for the state. Others, including the more rebellious Rep. Jim Ward, of Wichita, who lost to Burroughs in last year's leadership race, don't hesitate to put forth their own proposals, even if they know they'll be shot down by the Republican majority.

Burroughs appeared to try to bridge that gap Thursday when he was asked specifically by one reporter whether Democrats would actually introduce any bills this year — on school finance or taxes or any other Democratic priority — or would they instead stick to offering floor amendments, or simply protesting GOP policies by always voting no.

Burroughs, in his usual fashion, tried to answer the question from the opposite direction:

"What we won't do is sit by and watch the vilification of teachers and the public education system continue to go without speaking up and speaking out against this administration," he said. "What we won't do is stand aside and watch continued cuts occur when we're seeing 338,000 businesses continue to receive tax breaks and put our children's future at risk. And what we won't do as Democrats is stand aside and put another generation at risk by not receiving a quality, well-funded, supported, respected public education system."

Answers like that, along with the non-specific list of "core values" he announced, irritated a number of reporters in the room. And after the news conference, more than a few Democrats — most speaking on condition of anonymity because they didn't want to be seen criticizing their own leadership — said they were equally frustrated.

What's more, they said, standing by and watching Republicans push through their own agenda appeared to be precisely the leadership's strategy last year — when Republicans repealed the school finance formula and replaced it with block grants, and when they passed a tax bill that included a significant sales tax hike — and the lack of specifics offered in Thursday's news conference may indicate it will continue again this year.

But others in the party argue it's a waste of time to put together actual bills on complex subjects such as a new school finance formula, a budget or an overhaul of the tax code, knowing such bills will never receive a hearing and would be shot down by Republicans in the unlikely event they ever did reach the floor.

"I do sense some frustration over the fact that ideas Democrats care about, and that other Kansans care about, aren’t being heard," said Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence. "We don’t want to introduce bills just to introduce bills that aren’t going anywhere."

That side contends it's better to work on electing more Democrats until they have the numbers it takes to form a working majority. But the counter-argument to that is, it's hard to convince voters to elect Democrats if they never put forth proposals showing what government would look like if it's placed in their hands.

A few Democrats have already put forth their own bills. Sen. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, for example, has already introduced a lobbying reform bill, and he says he has a number of other "good government" bills that he'll roll out this year. And Rep. Ward, who is still pushing the Medicaid expansion bill he introduced last year, has already introduced a bill that would limit the gun rights of people listed on the federal government's terrorist watch list.

Wilson, however, said Thursday's press conference was only "the first in a series" of announcements Democrats plan to make this session, and that more specific proposals will be coming from the caucus.

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Lawmaker accused of racist Facebook post, later apologizes

A Kansas lawmaker’s Facebook post depicting a derogatory cartoon image of President Barack Obama and poking fun at Mexican accents ignited a storm of controversy Thursday.

The post (see below) by Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, has since been removed from his Facebook page, but not before it prompted a flurry of statements of condemnation. The posting Bradford shared from the Conservative Country community Facebook page featured a photo of a man wearing a sombrero and a headline, “Mexican words of the day.” It then jokingly fashioned unrelated words into a mock sentence in heavily accented English that celebrated Obama’s leaving office in January 2017. It also included an altered picture of the Democratic president.

Adding to the drama was the fact that Bradford was among a group of lawmakers who, in 2015, filed a formal complaint against Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, an African-American, accusing her of unjustly calling lawmakers racist during a committee meeting.

Winn publicly described supporters of a bill denying in-state tuition to people who are in the U.S. illegally “racist bigots.”

“I find this ironic because just last session Bradford joined several of his House Republican colleagues in trying to oust Rep. Valdenia Winn for asserting that this type of racism existed in the Kansas Legislature," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said. “This tasteless Facebook post not only proves that Representative Winn was correct about institutional racism in the Kansas Legislature, it also proves that Rep. Bradford is a racist himself."

Bradford said the image was something he found elsewhere on Facebook, and when he saw it, he clicked "share."

"It was in bad taste and I regret it," he said in a phone interview.

"I'm appalled and offended by the disrespect that Representative Bradford has shown not only to the president, but also to the African-American and Hispanic community," said Melody McCray-Miller, an African-American former legislator from Wichita who is now a vice-chair of the Kansas Democratic Party.

By Thursday afternoon, McCray-Miller was already sending out fundraising emails for the party citing Bradford's Facebook post. Bradford has already filed for re-election to his 40th District House seat. So far, no other candidates have filed to challenge him.

Carolyn Campbell, a Kansas State Board of Education member who is running for a seat in the Kansas House this year, said the post shows how far the U.S. still has to go before achieving Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial equality.

"These types of jokes and comments remind me of the mistreatment and racism that I experienced on a daily basis growing up in the 1950s," said Campbell, who is black. "I’m saddened and appalled that this is an individual who is making decisions that impact our children’s education system.”

Pedro Irigonegaray, a Cuban-American civil rights and defense attorney in Topeka, said Bradford "is making a mockery of his position by showing gross disrespect to the president of the United States and the Hispanic community."

"This type of behavior cannot be tolerated, and Republican leadership should take appropriate action immediately and sanction him for his reprehensible, bigoted and racist posting," he said. "We should remember that Representative Bradford was one of the individuals leading the charge to sanction Representative Winn; it is difficult to conceive greater hypocrisy.”

The post originated from a group called Conservative Country, and is one of dozens of memes it has created criticizing Obama, gun control, Muslims, Democrats and "political correctness" in general.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A post on the Facebook page of Rep. John Bradford, R-Leavenworth, has since been removed, but not before igniting a firestorm of controversy.

A post on the Facebook page of Rep. John Bradford, R-Leavenworth, has since been removed, but not before igniting a firestorm of controversy. by Peter Hancock

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No TV broadcast for State of the State this year

For the first time in many years, the Kansas governor's State of the State address won't be broadcast live on television. At least that's how things stand now.

Dave McClintock, interim CEO of KPTS-TV, the public television station in Wichita, said the station was unable to raise the money to cover the cost of the broadcast this year and therefore decided to cancel it. KPTS has carried the State of the State address for the last several years and has shared both the video and audio feeds with other stations that wanted to carry it.

This year, however, it's doubtful that many commercial stations would carry it anyway because Gov. Sam Brownback has scheduled the Jan. 12 speech at 5:30 p.m., bumping up against the national network news programs.

Also, President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver his final State of the Union address at 8 p.m. that same night.

Eileen Hawley, Brownback's press secretary, said the state of Kansas will live-stream a video feed of the speech through its website, Kansas.gov. She also said the administration is working with media outlets to ensure that all Kansans are able to watch and listen to the address.

J. Schafer, news director at Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence, said KPR will carry the audio portion of the speech live, and will make that signal available to other public radio stations in Kansas City, Wichita, Pittsburg, Hutchinson and Garden City by way of an NPR satellite, but that satellite signal is unavailable to non-NPR affiliates.

McClintock said he regretted that KPTS is unable to carry the speech this year.

"Hopefully we’ll not be in that position next year," he said.

Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to reflect that the state of Kansas will live-stream the speech on its website.

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Helgerson returning to Kansas House

Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat who served in the Kansas House from 1983 through 2000, will return to the chamber for the 2016 session.

Helgerson was elected by Democratic precinct committee members Tuesday night to replace Rep. Carolyn Bridges in the 83rd District. Only six precinct committee slots are filled in that district and, in a 4-2 vote, Helgerson defeated Chris Pumpelly, communications director in Democrat Paul Davis' unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year.

Helgerson also served briefly in the Kansas Senate during the 2003 and 2004 sessions, filling the unexpired term of Sen. Paul Feliciano, who resigned to accept an appointment to the Kansas Parole Board. He then lost the 2004 election to Republican Mike Petersen after a campaign in which the GOP questioned whether Helgerson actually lived in the district.

“I’ve had several years of sitting on the sideline, and I’m fed up,” Helgerson said in a statement released Tuesday night. “The state we’re in now isn’t the state I remember or the state the citizens deserve.”

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Christie files in Kansas; Campbell running for House seat; Brunk resigns from Legislature

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this week became the seventh Republican candidate to file for the Kansas Republican caucuses, which will take place March 5.

Christie filed Wednesday, the day after the latest Republican presidential debate was broadcast on CNN.

"The 13 Republican candidates, including Governor Christie, showcased at Tuesday's debate, showed the American people why a Republican will win the White House in November 2016," Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said.

As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie became a familiar figure on the campaign trail in Kansas, where he appeared several times stumping on behalf of Gov. Sam Brownback.

The March 5 caucuses will take place at about 95 different caucus locations around the state, Arnold said. The caucuses are open only to registered Republican voters.

Democrats will also hold their caucuses March 5. So far, Hillary Clinton is the only Democratic candidate to file in that race.

KSBOE's Campbell to run for House seat

Carolyn Campbell, who represents Lawrence, Topeka and much of northeast Kansas on the Kansas State Board of Education, has announced she will not seek a third term on the state board in 2016. Instead, she intends to run for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Campbell filed paperwork Dec. 11 appointing a campaign treasurer to run in the 58th District, which was recently vacated by the resignation of Rep. Harold Lane. Campbell sought appointment to that seat when the six precinct committee members in the district met to name a replacement, but lost her bid to Rev. Ben Scott, a longtime leader of the Topeka Chapter of the NAACP.

During legislative sessions, Campbell, a Democrat, also works as an administrative assistant to Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka. She was re-elected to her second term on the state board in 2012, garnering 71 percent of the vote against Republican Jack Wu, a member of Westboro Baptist Church.

Meanwhile, former Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, has filed to run for Campbell's 4th District seat on the state board.

The 4th District is made up of four State Senate districts that are currently held by Sens. Hensley, Laura Kelly of Topeka, Marci Francisco of Lawrence, all Democrats, and Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican.

Brunk resigns from Kansas House

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, officially submitted his resignation Thursday to the Kansas Secretary of State's office.

"Please accept this resignation as my notice to resign my House seat in District 85, effective Jan. 4, 2016," Brunk wrote in a handwritten letter.

Brunk recently accepted a position as executive director of the Kansas Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian organization that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and pushes for legislation promoting "traditional" marriage and families.

He stirred controversy when KFPC initially announced his hiring. Brunk told the Wichita Eagle that he didn't necessarily think he would have to resign his House seat or his chairmanship, despite the fact that his committee deals with legislation in which KFPC has lobbying positions.

Republican precinct committee members in the 85th district will meet soon to name Brunk's successor. A date for that election has not yet been announced.

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ACLU expects ‘religious freedom’ bills in statehouses next year

The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday it expects a plethora of so-called "religious freedom" bills to be introduced in state legislatures nationwide next year, including bills that would allow faith-based and other nonprofit agencies to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples in the placement of foster children.

"Now mind you, this is even if the agencies are receiving state funds to perform these duties, and even if their adoption or foster care arrangement would be in the best interests of the child," said Eunice Rho, an advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU. "We saw pretty big fights on this particular issue in Alabama and Florida in 2015, and we expect that to continue into 2016."

That's an idea that could capture the attention of lawmakers in Kansas, where the Department of Children and Families has faced allegations of discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, a charge that DCF officials have strenuously denied. Nevertheless, the Legislative Post Audit Committee tentatively agreed last week to authorize a wide-ranging audit of DCF practices in its foster care and adoption programs, including the allegations of anti-gay discrimination.

"I believe there are three states that currently have these kinds of laws, and (those are) North Dakota, Virginia and Michigan," Rho said.

"I think there are a few usual suspects that try and shop these laws around," she said. "I couldn’t tell you if they’re all completely coordinated, but the organizations that tend to push for these laws include the Family Policy Council affiliates in the state."

In Kansas, Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, which deals with hot-button social issues, recently accepted a job as executive director of the Kansas Family Policy Council, a conservative group with ties to the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. KFPC describes its mission as, "To strengthen Kansas families by providing resources that defend and promote Christian values and equip citizens to positively impact their communities and the state."

According to a report Wednesday by KWCH-TV in Wichita, Brunk has said said he will resign his House seat effective Jan. 4. Brunk did not immediately return phone calls from the Journal-World to confirm that report.

Brunk had earlier told the Wichita Eagle that he wouldn't necessarily have to resign because he would not be acting as a lobbyist for the group. The newspaper quoted him last week as saying, "One of the things that they want to do is impact legislation and so how better to do that than to have the person who handles all of that legislation actually be in the Legislature and actually be chairman of the committee?”

The foster care and adoption legislation is only one of several categories of religious freedom bills the ACLU said it expects to crop up next year. Another, which made headlines in Kansas and Missouri last year, would require public colleges and universities to fund student organizations that don't conform to their schools' own nondiscrimination policies.

"We saw bills like these in Kansas and Missouri in 2015," Rho said. "We should anticipate some activity in those states in the upcoming year as well."

Other types of religious freedom bills the ACLU says it is monitoring include:

• State versions of legislation pending in Congress known as the "First Amendment Defense Act," or FADA, that would shield individuals or businesses from "adverse governmental consequences" for discrimination, including the loss of government benefits, government contracts or licenses.

• Bills that would allow government officials to exempt themselves from having to perform marriage-related duties for couples if that official objects to the marriage on religious grounds, a response to a recent controversy in Kentucky where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples until she was forced to do so by a federal court.

• And bills to allow for-profit businesses to refuse goods or services to same-sex couples based on religious grounds, a response to a controversy in Colorado where a baker was fined for refusing to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

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Clinton becomes first Democrat to file for Kansas caucuses

Hillary Clinton pledged to run a "ground up, grassroots campaign" in Kansas Thursday as she became the first Democratic candidate to file in the state's March 5 caucuses.

“Our campaign in Kansas is being built from the ground up, driven by a grassroots coalition that’s excited about Hillary Clinton’s proven record and fired up about her agenda that addresses the issues that keep them up at night head on," the Clinton campaign said in a statement announcing her filing.

Clinton qualified for the caucuses by paying the party's $2,500 filing fee. As with the Republican Party, money generated by the filing fees will be used to promote the caucuses and pay the expenses of holding them. Democrats plan to have caucus meetings in each of the 40 state Senate districts, but a list of those locations has not yet been announced.

At least two other candidates are expected to file: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

So far, six candidates have lined up for the Republican caucuses in Kansas, which will also be held March 5. They include Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson.

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Former Gov. Carlin to lead Hillary Clinton campaign in Kansas

Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin has been named to lead a 30-person "State Leadership Council" for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in Kansas.

“Since day 1 of her campaign, Hillary Clinton has been laying out bold policy proposals like her comprehensive infrastructure plan that will create good-paying jobs and meet a real need,” Carlin said in a statement released by the campaign. “Hillary is the candidate we need as our next president, and I’m ready to help lead her efforts in Kansas.”

Carlin, a Democrat originally from Smolan, served as the state's 40th governor from 1979 to 1987. Before that, he served in the Kansas Legislature, including four years as Speaker of the House.

In 1994, he ran unsuccessfully for the open 2nd District seat in Congress, losing to Republican Sam Brownback. The next year, President Bill Clinton named him to head the National Archives, where he served for 10 years.

His main task for the Hillary Clinton campaign will be to secure as many of the state's delegates for her as possible in the March 5 caucuses. In general elections, no Democrat has won Kansas since Lyndon Johnson's landslide election in 1964.

Other members of Clinton's Kansas leadership team include former state Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon, State Rep. Carolyn Bridges of Wichita, and Steven Wright, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party’s African American Caucus.

Neither of the other two major Democratic candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have named Kansas campaign teams, although a grassroots organizing committee has formed to support Sanders.

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Democrat files for Johnson County House seat

Democrat Brett Parker announced Tuesday that he will run for the 29th District seat in the Kansas House, a seat currently held by Rep. James Todd, R-Overland Park.

Parker, an English language teacher in the Olathe school district, said he plans to make education a major issue in the campaign.

“I’ve seen firsthand the detrimental effects, the policies advanced by Gov. (Sam) Brownback and Rep. Todd have had on the students in our district," he said in a statement released Tuesday. "It’s time families in Overland Park had an ally, not an enemy, in the Kansas Legislature.”

Republicans make up about 45 percent of the registered voters in the 29th District, compared to only 24 percent for Democrats. But voters there went for Democrat Paul Davis over Brownback, 52-45 percent, in last year's gubernatorial race. And in 2012, Barack Obama won almost 45 percent of the vote in that district, seven points better than he did statewide.

Todd is serving his second term in the House. He won the 2014 election, 54-46 percent, over Democrat Heather Meyer. In 2015, he voted in favor of the bill repealing the old per-pupil school funding formula and replacing it for two years with block grants. He also voted in favor of a bill allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit or training.

Brett Parker

Brett Parker by Peter Hancock

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Couture-Lovelady resigns from Kansas House

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a leading supporter of a new law that allows people to carry concealed handguns without training or a permit, resigned from the Kansas House over the weekend to accept a job as a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

Couture-Lovelady, a two-term Republican from Palco, in central Kansas, was one of the lead proponents in the House this year of S.B. 45, known as the "Constitutional Carry" law, which removed the requirement that people undergo eight hours of training and obtain a permit in order to carry a concealed handgun, as long as they are not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a firearm.

He was also a sponsor of H.B. 2199, the proposed "Second Amendment Protection Act," which would have excluded guns manufactured and possessed in Kansas from any form of federal gun regulation. That bill became the target of a "gut-and-go" procedure in which its contents were stripped out and replaced with a bill on an entirely different subject.

But the Constitutional Carry bill did become law, and it was immediately lampooned on the late-night comedy TV circuit, including a segment on "The Daily Show," in which host Jon Stewart called it a signal that Kansas had ceased to be a national symbol of normalcy.

Couture-Lovelady confirmed in an email that he will become a multistate lobbyist for the NRA. He said Kansas will be part of his portfolio, but he could not say at the time in which other states he would be lobbying.

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KASB president to run against Abrams for Kansas Senate

Don Shimkus, a school board member from Oxford and current president of the Kansas Association of School Boards, announced Wednesday that he will run as a Democrat for a seat in the Kansas Senate.

Shimkus is challenging incumbent Republican Steve Abrams of Arkansas City in the 32nd District in south-central Kansas. Abrams is a veterinarian and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Shimkus is the manager of a music store in Andover.

Abrams is a former member of the Kansas State Board of Education, where he gained notoriety as a conservative who championed deleting references to macro-evolution from state science standards and changing the definition of science in a way that would have allowed the teaching of "intelligent design."

“I am genuinely concerned about the inequality of our current tax structure, the future of rural medical care, and the inadequate funding of public education,” Shimkus said in a statement released Wednesday. “I fear that, in all aspects, our rural population – which makes up a significant part of our state – is being forgotten in Topeka. Our district needs an advocate who understands how this population greatly contributes to the livelihood and well-being of our great state.”

Shimkus will likely face an uphill battle. Republicans make up 49 percent of the registered voters in the 32nd District. Democrats make up only 22 percent, while 28 percent are unaffiliated.

According to an analysis by Kansas University political science professor Patrick Miller, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback carried the district in 2014 with 53 percent of the vote. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got 67 percent of the district's vote.

Shimkus said he and his wife, Keri, have lived in the district for 20 years. They have two sons, a freshman at Kansas State University and a sophomore at Oxford High School.

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