Entries from blogs tagged with “politics”
Kansas lawmakers met late into the night both Friday and Saturday last week, then topped it off with a marathon session that began early Sunday afternoon and lasted until 3:30 a.m. Monday.
And while the budget bill was the focus of most of the media attention, the fact of the matter is that lawmakers passed twice as many bills during the five-day wrap-up session as they did in the entire 68-day regular session.
Some of those bills, like the complete update and overhaul of the state’s corporation laws, are probably very important to a lot of people, but most of us can live our lives peacefully without worrying too much about them.
Then there’s the category of bills that often leaves people wondering why any state legislature is even spending time on them and, moreover, why they stirred so much controversy and debate.
Take, for example, House Bill 2059 ... which included, among other things, an act to name a bison herd at the Mined Land Wildlife Area in Crawford County as the Bob Grant Bison Herd.
Bills naming things after people — former lawmakers, governors, military veterans, local dignitaries — are fairly routine, and they generally pass unanimously as a matter of courtesy to the lawmaker or outside group requesting them.
But that wasn’t the case with the Bob Grant Bison Herd, to be named after the late southeast Kansas Democrat who served 20 years in the House before he retired in 2013. He died in December 2015.
What made it controversial is the fact that Grant’s widow, Lynn Grant, is now a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, challenging incumbent Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg.
And so when the bill emerged as part of a conference committee report, and the effective date of the act had been moved back to Jan. 1, 2017 — so that the ceremony couldn’t be conducted until after the election — Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley came unhinged.
In a furious speech on the floor of the Senate, Hensley called the change “despicable” and a lot of other adjectives, and he openly accused the conference committee of making the change solely for political purposes in order to protect a freshman senator who is facing a potentially strong challenge.
Of course, it didn’t go unnoticed that passage of the bill in its original form also would have provided a nice political photo op for Lynn Grant when the new “Bob Grant Bison Herd” sign would be dedicated right in the middle of the campaign season. But there was no open discussion of that on the floor.
Hensley tried unsuccessfully to send the bill back to the conference committee to move the effective date to the original language, its publication in the statute book. And in the end, Hensley was called out by 26 Republican senators who made a belated point of order, noting that Roberts Rules of Order forbid members from attacking or questioning “the motives of anther member.”
Oddly, the Bob Grant Bison Herd provision was inserted into a conference report that had previously been rejected and sent back by the Senate because of concerns about the two other bills contained in the package: one allowing commercial zoos, namely the Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, to offer limited public contact with dangerous animals, like baby panthers and; and another authorizing research into the industrial uses of hemp.
But even on its second trip through the Senate, the bill was rejected on a voice vote, and it was never considered in the House.
And speaking of animals … Rep. John Wilson got in a few good one-liners on a couple of animal bills in the House.
House Bill 2480 makes some amendments to state livestock branding laws, including one provision that would now exempt sheep and goats from the definition of livestock, so they won’t have to be branded, and their brands won’t have to be inspected by the Department of Agriculture.
Noting that the city of Lawrence recently legalized the keeping of goats in the city limits, Wilson, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, rose to ask a question, clarifying that the bill does not outlaw tattooing or body piercing of goats, “because we do a lot of that in Lawrence.”
On another animal-related bill, Wilson also got up to speak on a perennial piece of legislation that has become known as “the antler bill.” This year, it emerged in a conference report on Senate Bill 388. It would have required that when an illegally killed animal, such as a deer, is found on private property, the Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism must first offer the body parts such as antlers to the landowner before putting them up for public auction, which is current law.
Wilson has argued in the past that the law goes against the prevailing theory behind virtually all wildlife management laws in North America, which is that wildlife is a public asset that belongs to the public, not necessarily to the owner of the land that the wildlife walks on or flies over.
“This should have been included in the Alvarez and Marsal efficiency study, for all the time and energy we spend on it,” Wilson said.
The bill passed the House last year, 83-47, but died in the Senate. This year, it re-emerged as part of a conference report and again passed the House, 81-32, but failed in the Senate, 15-25.
All members of the Lawrence-area delegation in both chambers voted against it.
Air rifles in public schools … will become legal, with certain conditions, under House Bill 2502, which made it through both chambers in the closing days.
As we reported in January, the bill was requested by the sponsors of a BB gun club in Derby that was denied permission to use public school facilities for its practices and tournaments.
The club had been using the school since 1985, under the same policy that makes school facilities available to all manner of other community organizations. But last year, the Derby school district changed its policy, citing the Kansas Weapons Free Schools Act, which not only prohibits firearms in schools but mandates a one-year expulsion of any student who violates the law.
A majority of lawmakers, though, viewed this as not just an overreach by the schools — strictly speaking, air guns are not firearms — but also a Second Amendment issue.
And so, in the closing days, it was bundled together with a number of concealed carry bills, including one that makes it a little easier for city councils, county commissions and other governing boards to ban guns from inside their chambers during meetings, without necessarily banning them from the building entirely.
The bill also includes a provision, though, that protects the right of public employees who work outside a government building — meter readers, building inspectors, etc. — to carry concealed handguns with them on the job.
From Douglas County, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, voted for the bill. Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard, Boog Highberger and John Wilson, and Democratic Sen. Marci Francisco voted against it. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, was recorded present but not voting.
Acupuncture and midwifery … got a nod of respect from the Legislature this year.
House Bill 2615 would, for the first time, authorize the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to license and regulate acupuncturists and would require anyone who practices acupuncture to be licensed, beginning in 2017.
The bill also sets out standards for someone to become a “certified nurse midwife” and would allow the individual, beginning Jan. 1, to engage in a limited scope of practice independently, without having to have a collaborative agreement with a licensed physician and surgeon.
That bill almost failed when, on Friday, House members objected to a provision that had been inserted but that had never been considered by either chamber and was never discussed in regular committee hearings: a ban on midwives performing abortions.
That language managed to stay in the bill anyway, and on its second trip through the chambers it passed the Senate, 40-0, and the House, 115-7.
All members of the Douglas County delegation voted in favor of the bill.
That, interestingly, was the only bill considered in the 2016 session dealing directly with abortion, an issue that has dominated most sessions since the early 1990s.
The only other one that came close, Senate Bill 248, puts into statute what lawmakers have inserted as a proviso in every budget bill since 2011, a requirement that federal family planning money be distributed first to public health clinics before any can be given to private clinics such as Planned Parenthood.
That bill passed the House, 87-34, and the Senate, 32-8. It was opposed by all six legislators from Douglas County.
TOPEKA — State Sen. Marci Francisco and Rep. John Wilson, both Democrats from Lawrence, have both filed re-election.
Francisco filed Monday, shortly after the 2016 Legislature adjourned, to seek a third term representing the 2nd Senate District, which includes nearly all of Lawrence north of 23rd Street, portions of northern Douglas County and parts of Jefferson County.
She’ll be favored in the largely Democratic district, which Barack Obama carried with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2008 and 2012. But she will face a challenge in the general election from Meredith Richey, of Perry, who is making her first run for public office.
Richey got an early start in the race. Since filing in January, she has been showing up regularly at Republican events, such as the GOP state convention in February, and at polling places during the March 5 Republican caucuses.
Wilson, who filed last week, is seeking his third term representing the 10th House District, which includes the south end of Lawrence, Baldwin City, and parts of three townships in southern Douglas County.
So far, no other candidates have filed in that district, which also leans heavily Democratic.
The only members of the Douglas County delegation who have not filed so far are Sen. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, and Rep. Boog Highberger, of Lawrence. Both have indicated they intend to file. Also, neither of them has so far drawn a challenger.
Elsewhere in Kansas, though, several lawmakers have announced they will not run in 2016, or at least won’t run for the seat they currently have.
Leading the list is House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, who is finishing his second term as speaker, the traditional term limit for the top leader in the House. It’s not known yet who will try to replace him next year, but a list of usual suspects would normally include the majority leader, who is Rep. Jene Vickrey of Louisburg, and the speaker pro tem, who is Rep. Peggy Mast, of Emporia.
Also, a few speakers in recent years have risen there from the office of Appropriations Committee chairman, which is currently Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, who received praise from both sides of the aisle for his hard work, if not the final product, steering the committee through a number of particularly difficult issues this year.
Three candidates — one Democrat and two Republicans — have filed to run for Merrick’s 27th District seat.
The other significant House retirement from Johnson County this year is Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, who was unceremoniously removed by Merrick this year as chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick County is certain to see a lot of change in its legislative delegation this year. So far, the list of members who’ve announced they’re not running again include Republican Reps. Dennis Hedke, Mark Kahrs and Mark Hutton, as well as Senate tax committee chairman Les Donovan.
Donovan, who turns 80 this week, had threatened to resign last year out of frustration during the record-breaking 114-day session that got bogged down over tax issues. He came back from the ledge then, but there was no convincing him to run again this year.
Hedke may be best remembered as the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee who rejects the science of climate change. He suffered a major emotional loss last year when, during the 2015 session, his wife of 37 years, Annette, died after being struck by a vehicle in a grocery store parking lot.
Kahrs is not so much stepping out of the Legislature as he is stepping up in politics. In February, he was named the Kansas Republican Party’s new national committeeman. Hutton did not offer a specific reason for leaving, but he has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax policies and likely would have been targeted with a postcard campaign from conservative groups, a campaign tactic he disparaged in a 2015 op-ed piece in the Wichita Eagle.
Former Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Republican who served in the House from 1995 to 2012, has announced she will run for Hutton's seat.
Another Wichita-area legislator, Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell, is reportedly considering stepping down to run for Sedgwick County Commission. He was a beneficiary of outside spending during the 2012 GOP primaries, taking out moderate Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf, in a concerted effort by Brownback and his political allies to put conservatives in control of the Senate.
This year, Democrats and moderate Republicans hope to take back some of the ground they lost four years ago.
Rep. Jerry Henry, R-Atchison, has announced he plans to run against first-term GOP Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha. And moderate Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City, has filed to run against Sen. Larry Powell, the conservative who unseated former Senate President Steve Morris, of Hugoton, in the 2012 conservative takeover.
Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was back in Topeka over the weekend to help raise money for the Kansas Democratic Party, and she quickly showed she can still draw a crowd and fire up the party’s base.
Speaking to about 100 party officers, donors and elected officials, Sebelius said Kansas Democrats stand a good chance this year of picking up seats in the Kansas Legislature, in part because it’s a presidential year, and more voters go to the polls for a national race.
“I think there is no question, whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, we will have the single worst Republican presidential candidate that I have ever seen in my lifetime,” Sebelius told a cheering crowd at the Jayhawker Tower in downtown Topeka.
Sebelius was elected to two terms as governor starting in 2002. She resigned in 2009 when she was named to be President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Since then, Republicans have run the table in Kansas elections, winning every statewide and congressional race since 2010 while also gaining seats in the Kansas Legislature.
Democrats are trying to reverse that trend, starting by building up a group called the Blue Club, a network of what the folks in public radio and TV would call “sustaining members” who pledge to contribute a specified amount every month so the party won’t have to rely as heavily on big one-time or annual events for its annual budget.
Sebelius said after the event that she plans to be involved in fundraising and campaigning, at both the state and national levels this year.
“I’m going to be involved in the (Hillary) Clinton campaign to some degree, and certainly my heart and soul is here in Kansas,” she said.
Final delegates chosen
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, will be a Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
The party’s state committee met in Topeka Saturday shortly before the fundraising event to pick it’s final 11 delegates: four “Party Leader and Elected Official” delegates, or PLEO’s; and 11 at-large delegates.
Under party rules, the delegates are divided proportionately between Clinton and her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, based on the outcome of the party’s March 5 caucuses, which Sanders won by more than a two-to-one margin.
As a result, three of the four PLEO delegates will be pledged to Sanders, while only one slot was open for a Clinton supporter.
Ballard was chosen in a contested race over Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland and fellow Reps. Sydney Carlin of Manhattan and Jim Ward of Wichita. Ward was later chosen as one of two at-large delegates for Clinton. Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka had been a candidate for that slot, but announced before the vote that he withdrew his name from consideration.
The three PLEO delegates for Sanders will be Rep. Ponka-We Victors of Wichita, 3rd District Chairman Andy Sandler of Johnson County; and 2nd District Treasurer Ty Dragoo of Topeka.
The other at-large delegate for Clinton will be Anna Hand of Hays.
Sanders was awarded five at-large delegates from Kansas, and his campaign reportedly submitted more than 120 names to fill those slots. They five chosen are: Sarah Parrish of Merriam; Nathan Bales of Winfield; Ricardo Cortez of Topeka; Pamela Darpel of Olathe; and Burton Warrington of Mayetta.
The Democratic and Republican parties in Kansas are getting ready to make their final delegate selections, and if you've been paying close attention to the presidential races, you already know this could be more contentious than usual.
Both parties have already named a certain number of their delegates, in proportion to the number of votes each candidate received in the March 5 caucuses. But the remainder will be named in upcoming state party conventions: Saturday, April 30 for the Democrats; two weeks later, on May 14, for the Republicans.
Adding drama to this year's process is the possibility that no candidate from either party will have enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. That means the major campaigns are now working the state party committees, trying to elect delegates who, although they may be pledged to another candidate on the first ballot, would be willing to vote for a different candidate on the second or third ballot.
But there is likely to be less of that kind of drama in Kansas than in many other states where delegates are only bound to their candidates on the first ballot. In both parties in Kansas, delegates are bound to their candidates until that candidate officially releases them, at which point they become free agents, able to vote for anyone they choose.
Nationally, the chances of a brokered convention are much slimmer on the Democratic side where, according to the Associated Press, Hillary Clinton is only 442 delegates shy of the magic 2,383 needed to win. She could narrow that gap significantly on Tuesday when 384 delegates will be up for grabs in five states. The prediction market website Pivit Politics is currently giving Clinton a 96 percent chance of being the Democratic nominee.
The Kansas Democratic Party has already named 26 of its 37 delegates. Those include 22 who were chosen at congressional district conventions following the March 5 caucuses (15 for Bernie Sanders and seven for Clinton) and four “super-delegates” who are free to vote for whomever they want. And of those four, only one, DNC National Committeewoman Teresa Garcia Cruzer, has pledged her support for anyone (Clinton).
The remaining 11 delegates will be elected Saturday at the state party convention. They include seven “at-large” delegates (five for Sanders and two for Clinton), and four delegates representing state party leaders and elected officials (three for Sanders and one for Clinton).
State party executive director Kerry Gooch said that at last count, 150 people had filed to run for the seven at-large delegate positions, and 11 have filed for the party leader/elected official positions.
Among the elected leaders vying for the one Clinton delegate position in that category are Reps. Barbara Ballard of Lawrence, Sydney Carlin of Manhattan and Jim Ward of Wichita, and Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka.
On the Republican side, as of Monday, Pivit Politics was laying even odds on the chances of a brokered convention. According to AP, front-runner Donald Trump only has 845 delegates committed. He needs 392 more to secure the nomination, meaning he would have to win more than half of the 733 delegates left to be awarded in the remaining primaries and caucuses.
The Kansas GOP has already seen some potential cross-over delegate action. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came out the big winner in Kansas' March 5 caucuses, but Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has since suspended his campaign, won enough votes to get one delegate from the Third Congressional District. At a district committee meeting last month, Republicans picked Rep. Amanda Grosserode, R-Lenexa, to be that Rubio delegate, even though she is a strong Cruz supporter, so there is no question about whom she will support if and when Rubio formally withdraws.
According to the state GOP's executive director Clay Barker, Rubio has not yet released his delegates, in Kansas or anywhere else, but the conventional wisdom is that it's only a matter of time until he does. That is, of course, unless the convention devolves into a donnybrook between Cruz and Trump, at which point Rubio or any number of other potential candidates tries to launch a bid from the convention floor.
Kansas Republicans will pick 25 of their 40 delegates at their state convention in May. Of those, 13 will be committed to Cruz; six to Trump; five to Rubio and one to Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The question then will be how much effort will Kasich and Rubio put forth to find delegates who are truly committed to them, and how much pressure will the Cruz and Trump campaigns exert to find delegates who will cross over to them on a second, third or subsequent ballot.
Kansas lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Wednesday to wrap up the 2016 legislative session, and GOP leaders are hoping to keep it short, within the "traditional" three to seven days.
There's a built-in incentive to keep it short this year. Under Kansas law, incumbent legislators are prohibited from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists before "sine die," the ceremonial end of the session, which is currently scheduled for June 1. With many of them facing primary election challenges in August, nobody is anxious to drag out this session any longer than they need to.
But before they can leave, lawmakers have several items that must be addressed, and a few more "sleeper" issues that could disrupt the process. So here's a look at the top issues to watch as the 2016 session winds to a close.
• Budget shortfall. Finalizing the budget is the number-one reason why Kansas lawmakers take a break in April and return for the wrap-up session. During that interim, agency officials team up with some independent economists to look at how revenues have been coming in, study some economic factors that could affect future revenues, and come up with a "consensus" figure that represents how much money they think the state can reasonably expect to receive in the future.
Under the Kansas Constitution and a number of state laws, the Legislature is required to balance its budget with expected revenues. Deficit spending is not allowed in state government.
As we've reported, the latest consensus numbers were not good. If the budget that lawmakers passed earlier in the session is left unchanged, the state would end this current fiscal year $140.1 million in the red. Next year's budget would be in the hole by some $151 million.
Gov. Sam Brownback's administration has outlined three possible options to close that gap by sweeping $185 million out of the highway fund — forcing delays on a number of scheduled expansion and modernization projects — cutting higher education funding, and using other sources of one-time or short-term money to plug the gaps.
Brownback has offered up three options for closing the remainder of the gap, none of which appear very popular: selling off part of the state's interest in future tobacco settlement revenue; further delaying an already-delayed payment into the state pension system; or imposing across-the-board cuts of 3-5 percent for most state programs, including K-12 education.
One option Brownback did not offer, and which he has all but ruled out, is raising any new taxes, especially in the form of repealing or scaling back the tax cuts that he championed in 2012 and 2013. Which leads us to the second issue to watch for in the wrap-up.
• Tax reform. Despite veto threats from Brownback's office, two bills are pending in the Legislature, one in each chamber, that would scale back the most controversial of the 2012 tax cuts, the one commonly known as the "LLC exemption" that exempts all non-wage income derived from certain kinds of business operations such as limited liability corporations, partnerships and sole proprietorships. Both bills are being pushed by Republican lawmakers.
Senate Bill 508 is backed by Republican Sens. Jeff King of Independence, and Jim Denning and Greg Smith, both of Overland Park. They say it would return the LLC exemption back to the Legislature's original intent, which was to mirror federal tax law by exempting only "working capital" (the first 30 percent of income) from those small businesses. The remaining 70 percent would go back on the tax rolls.
A similar measure, House Bill 2444, by Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, would eliminate the LLC exemption entirely, effective to July 1 of this year, raising about $261 million next year. But it would also drastically lower the state sales tax on food down to 2.6 percent, costing the state about $234 million. The net effect would be an estimated increase in revenues of $26.8 million.
This is where a governor's veto threat comes into play, and many lawmakers will be parsing the governor's words to find out just how serious he is this year. No matter how much support either of those bills might have - and that remains a big question - lawmakers by nature are reluctant to vote for any controversial policy if, in the end, they don't even get the policy they voted for. It's one thing to take heat over a supporting a policy that gets enacted, but quite another to take heat over supporting something that never ends up happening anyway.
• School finance. The Kansas Supreme Court is now reviewing a bill lawmakers passed on the final day of the regular session that redistributes so-called "equalization" aid to school districts to satisfy the court's concerns over funding equity. Oral arguments in that case are set for May 10, by which time lawmakers probably will have adjourned the wrap-up session. But if the court strikes down the new bill, lawmakers could be called back into a special session this summer, or face the possibility of the court ordering the closure of public schools.
Meanwhile, though, a much larger case that will go before the court later this year concerns the overall adequacy of Kansas school funding. One bill introduced late in the regular session would dramatically overhaul the way schools are funded. And while it's unlikely to be acted upon this year, it's possible that the House Appropriations Committee will begin hearings on the bill during the wrap-up session as a way of kick-starting a longer discussion on school finance that will continue over the summer and into the 2017 session.
• Local government restrictions. Still on the table, left over from the regular session, are a number of bills that would limit the authority of local governments to raise property taxes or enact certain kinds of affordable housing programs.
A House-Senate conference committee is expected to act quickly on a bill that would require cities and counties to get voter approval before they could increase property tax revenues beyond a certain limit. Douglas County and the city of Lawrence have expressed vocal opposition to any such limitation. But the conference committee has negotiated enough compromises — such as exempting revenue increases for public safety or the expiration of tax abatements given for economic development — that organizations representing cities and counties say they could live with it, even though they still don't like it.
Other bills dealing with local governments include House Bill 2665, which would prohibit local governments from enacting rental property licensing laws that allow officials to inspect the interior of a dwelling without a warrant. That bill passed the House, 70-55, and is now pending in a Senate Committee.
Also still on the table is a bill to prohibit local governments from enacting "inclusionary zoning" laws that restrict the resale price of some homes within a development area as a way of promoting affordable housing and mixed income neighborhoods. Different versions of that bill have passed both chambers and it is now being negotiated in a conference committee.
• Kansas Bioscience Authority. Although it hasn't received as much attention as some of the other issues this year, Gov. Brownback is still urging lawmakers to liquidate the state's holdings in the KBA, a quasi-public entity established in 2004 to make investments in startup bioscience companies, primarily in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
In fact, built into all of the budget projections being considered by the Legislature, is an assumption that the state will receive about $25 million from the sale of those assets. KBA's most recent financial statement, however, places the net value of those assets at about $83 million.
A bill authorizing the sale of those assets has passed the Senate and is now pending in the House.
'Sleeper issues.' In addition to those items, a number of other issues are lying dormant in the Legislature that could come up at any time.
Among those is a bill known as a "transgender bathroom" bill would require students in public schools and colleges to use the bathrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. Similar bills were recently signed into law in North Carolina and Mississippi, sparking national and international backlash.
Also lying dormant, at least for the time being, is a bill, narrowly passed by the Senate, that lays out possible grounds for impeaching Supreme Court justices and other constitutional officers. That bill is now sitting in the House Judiciary Committee where Chairman John Barker, R-Abilene, has said he has no plans to even hold hearings on it. Nevertheless, it still could be resurrected by other means such as attaching it as an amendment onto any other bill dealing with the court system.
Douglas County and the surrounding area are being spared from any of the project delays that were announced this week by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Those projects — 25 in all, totaling nearly $553 million — are being put on the back burner for now as part of Gov. Sam Brownback's recent budget-balancing plan, which involves sweeping $70 million out of the state highway fund this year, plus another $115 million next year, in order to shore up the state general fund.
The list only includes projects that are scheduled, but have not yet been started and contracts have not been awarded. For that reason, the biggest projects affecting Douglas County-area motorists, the South Lawrence Trafficway and the Johnson County "Gateway" project, are not included.
But for other areas of the state — primarily in southeast, central and western Kansas — that have been waiting for similar "expansion and modernization" projects, the list is extensive. And it's prompting a backlash from highway contractors and other transportation advocates who were already upset over previous raids on the highway fund, raids that they have referred to as "highway robbery."
“This latest plan to continue the choke-hold on transportation funding is bad news for all Kansans," Michael Johnston, a former KDOT secretary who now heads the group Economic Lifelines, said in a news release this week. "The T-WORKS program has been a proven job creator and has added value and economic activity during a time when our state has struggled."
T-Works is the name of the 10-year transportation program that lawmakers authorized in 2010, estimated at the time to cost about $8 billion. But the actual cost has been significantly lower than original estimates, now estimated at $7.6 billion, mainly because of record-low interest rates and near-record low prices for oil, a primary ingredient of asphalt.
The plan is funded with a combination of motor fuel taxes, federal highway funds and a portion of the state sales tax that is supposed to be earmarked for transportation. And, of course, it receives proceeds of bonds that are issued for highway projects.
For a time, that enabled the administration to sweep money out of the highway fund without having any visible impact on the highway plan. But the only money that could be taken was the sales tax money because the other revenue streams are legally restricted to be used only for transportation.
Originally, there was a cap on how much of the T-Works plan could be financed by bonds, but last year lawmakers temporarily raised that cap, and in December KDOT issued another $400 million in bonds that it wouldn't have been able to issue under the old cap.
KDOT argued that it made financial sense, given the low interest rates available at the time, and the expectation that the Federal Reserve would soon raise interest rates. But some critics saw it as a backdoor method of deficit spending — issuing debt in one area of government in order to free up money that could be shifted to another fund to pay for ongoing, day-to-day operations.
The administration's announcement this week that it was taking yet another $185 million over the next 16 months, raising to just more than $1 billion the total amount of "extraordinary transfers" out of the highway fund since Brownback took office in January 2011. And, it effectively taps out all of the money available to be withdrawn from what many people now call "the Bank of KDOT."
And this time, the fund sweeps are having an actual, visible effect, forcing the delay — but not cancellation — of projects many communities have been waiting on for years.
There are 15 highway "expansion" projects that were to be started in the next fiscal year that now will have to wait until fiscal year 2018 or later. They include:
• Crawford County: Two sections of U.S. Highway 69 that are to be made into four-lane expressways, totaling $49.2 million.
• Bourbon County: Another 6-mile stretch of U.S. 69 to be made into a four-lane upgradeable expressway. Cost: $26.5 million.
• Cherokee County: Expansion of a 6-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 166 to a four-lane freeway. Cost: $45.8 million.
- Gray and Ford counties: Expansion of a 16-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 50, from Cimmaron to Dodge City, to a four-lane expressway. Combined cost: $69 million.
• Geary County: Reconstruction of an intersection at Old U.S. Highway 77 and Old Milford Rd. in Junction City. Cost: $5.8 million.
• Lyon County: Expansion of a 1-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 50 to a four-lane expressway. Cost: $5 million.
• Miami County: Construction of a 0.3-mile frontage road along K-68 Highway. Cost. $2.26 million
• Miami County: Expansion of a 0.8-mile stretch of U.S. 69 to a four-lane expressway. Cost: $11.5 million.
• Montgomery County: Two projects involving construction of an interchange and reconstruction of a railroad crossing on U.S. Highway 169 in Independence. Combined cost: $14.2 million.
• Montgomery County: Expansion of a 1-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 75 from Caney to the Oklahoma border into a four-lane expressway. Cost: $5.6 million.
• Seward County: Two projects involving expansions of 3-mile stretches of U.S. Highway 54 to four-lane expressways. Combined cost: $44.4 million.
There are also 10 "modernization" projects that will be delayed because of the latest fund sweeps. They include:
• Anderson County: Reconstruction of a 9-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 169 from Welda to Garnett. Cost: $25 million.
• Morris and Geary counties: Two projects to widen and reconstruct a 24-mile stretch of K-177 Highway from near Council Grove to Interstate 70. Combined cost: $29 million.
• Harvey County: Reconstruction of an interchange at Interstate 135 and 36th Street in Newton. Cost: $12.1 million.
• Norton and Phillips counties: Two projects involving reconstruction of a 25-mile stretch of K-383 Highway. Combined cost: $54 million.
• Osage County: Reconstruction of a 7-mile stretch of K-31 Highway from Osage City to U.S. Highway 75. Cost: $20.6 million.
• Reno and Rice counties: Two projects involving construction of a 15-mile stretch of K-14 Highway, making a two-lane highway on a four-lane right of way. Combined cost: $93 million.
• Russell County: Reconstruction of a 15-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 281. Cost: $39.9 million.
If you're a customer of Westar Energy, you might be understandably confused about what's about to happen to your electric bill. Is it going up or down? The answer is, it's hard to say right now.
The confusion stems from decisions last week by two different regulatory agencies — one federal and one state — that deal with how much Westar charges for transmission fees. That's the money it collects, separate and apart from the price of the electricity itself, for transmitting that electricity across a network of power lines and substations to get it from the power plant or wind farm to your neighborhood.
You can think of it as a shipping fee. Whenever you buy a new shirt or computer from an online retailer, there's the cost of the product itself, and then there's the cost of sending it to your house.
That transmission fee — formally known as a "tariff" — is regulated at both the state and federal level. The Kansas Corporation Commission, the state agency, is in charge of setting the rate based on a complex formula that determines how much of the overall load on the electric grid is attributable to different classes of customers. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, also has a role that includes deciding how much profit a utility company like Westar can make off of its investment in transmission lines.
Two years ago, the KCC filed a complaint with FERC, alleging that Westar was making too much profit, as measured by its "return on equity," or ROE. At the time, according to the KCC, Westar was earning about 11.3 percent ROE.
Nearly a year later, in July 2015, the KCC and Westar reached an agreement whereby Westar would lower its ROE to 10.3 percent and refund roughly $10 million to its customers. That would have lowered most residential customer bills by about 40 cents per month.
But that settlement needed the approval of FERC, which evidently wasn't very pleased with it. And so negotiations continued until last week when FERC signed off on another settlement in which Westar has agreed to lower its ROE to 9.8 percent, along with the same $10 million refund. According to the KCC, that lower ROE would save ratepayers about $8 million annually.
That still hasn't become final yet. According to Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig, the company needs to make a new filing with the KCC to implement the agreement, and both the KCC and FERC need to sign off on the final numbers, a process that could take a number of months.
Westar estimates the agreement will save residential customers about $1.50 per month, Penzig said.
But here's where things get complicated, and it explains why many customers are understandably confused. While those negotiations have been going on, Westar filed a new tariff request with the KCC, as it periodically must do, seeking to update its transmission tariff. That request was based on the previous 10.3 percent ROE. And according to KCC spokesman Samir Arif, the commission was statutorily obligated to accept it once it had reviewed the numbers.
And so on Thursday, one day after the FERC settlement to lower the transmission tariff was announced, the KCC issued a separate order to raise the tariff by $25 million, or roughly $4 per month for an average customer. That order took effect immediately April 1.
Acknowledging that this is all just a bit hard for average customers to digest at once, the KCC included a statement in its press release Thursday saying its staff will continue to audit the new, higher transmission charge to make sure it stays within the new lower ROE limit.
For its part, Westar notes it has invested $1.3 billion in its power grid over the past 10 years, much of which has been for transmission lines that bring energy from its wind farms in central and western Kansas to its urban population centers in Wichita, Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka.
Merger and acquisition rumors
Meanwhile, some of you may still be wondering about recent media speculation that Westar could go up on the auction block sometime soon.
Penzig had a one-sentence answer when asked about those rumors: "We don’t comment on speculation in the marketplace."
According to a Bloomberg story in March, it was Westar's own CEO Mark Ruelle who fanned that speculation when he spoke to business reporters during a conference call in November about the company's quarterly financial report.
“In the context of M&A (mergers and acquisition), given our relative size, we don’t really perceive ourselves likely to be a buyer, were there a consolidation,” Bloomberg quoted Ruelle as saying. “I think we would be more likely to see ourselves [as a] seller than a buyer.”
That comment caused Westar's stock price to skyrocket almost immediately, which resulted in trading of the stock being temporarily suspended.
Ruelle's comment came in response to questions about a recent spate of mergers and acquisitions in the U.S. utility industry. According to the Bloomberg article, demand for electricity has been leveling off in recent years, and some companies have decided their only opportunity for growth is through acquisitions.
Bloomberg cited unnamed sources as saying Westar has been in talks with potential financial advisers as the company looks at its options.
Westar, which serves 700,000 customers in Kansas, is the state's largest public utility company. But its operations are contained entirely within the state of Kansas.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, will face a rematch in August with the same primary challenger he defeated two years ago.
Jeremy Ryan Pierce, 33, recently filed paperwork to run as a Republican against Sloan in the 45th House District, which includes parts of western Lawrence and rural western Douglas County. In that same race in 2014, Sloan defeated Pierce, 76-24 percent.
Sloan, a moderate Republican who has supported expanding the state's Medicaid program and opposed Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cut initiatives in 2012 and 2013, is seeking his 12th term in the House.
Pierce ran two years ago saying he supports Brownback's tax plan and believes there are ways to cut spending in order to balance the state budget without raising taxes.
Pierce is one of several challengers who have filed in recent days to run for seats in the 2016 elections. Other recent challenger filings include:
• Lynn Grant, D-Frontenac, filed Wednesday to run in the 13th Senate District in southeast Kansas against incumbent Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg. Grant is perhaps best known as the wife of the late Rep. Bob Grant, who served 10 terms in the Legislature before retiring in 2013. LaTurner, a small business owner, is completing his first term in the Senate. He has been an ardent conservative, voting in favor of restrictions on abortion, expansion of concealed carry gun rights, and imposing a property tax lid on local governments.
• Patty Markley, R-Overland Park, also filed Wednesday to run in a GOP primary against incumbent Rep. Craig McPherson for the 8th District seat in the Kansas House. Markley served on the Prairie Village City Council from 1999 to 2003 and is a former PTO president at her daughters' school in Overland Park. McPherson, an attorney, is finishing his second term in the House. In 2015, he voted in favor of the bill to replace the school finance formula with a system of block grants, as well as a bill allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a license.
• Mary Jo Taylor, superintendent of the Stafford school district in western Kansas, filed Monday to challenge incumbent Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, in the GOP primary for the 33rd District Senate seat. Holmes, a conservative who sponsored a bill this year to define the grounds for impeaching justices of the Kansas Supreme Court, is currently chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
• Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, announced Wednesday that she intends to run for the 3rd District House seat against incumbent Republican Rep. Chuck Smith. Murnan currently serves on the Pittsburg City Commission. She also worked for 17 years as executive director of a nonprofit adult and early-childhood education center. Smith is a teacher and high school football coach in Pittsburg.
Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins has launched a new state-level political action committee to help Republican candidates running this year for the Kansas House and Senate, primarily within the 2nd Congressional District.
Paperwork for the new PAC, known as Jenkins Ad Astra PAC, was filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission March 8.
"She's obviously interested in what’s going on in the state Legislature and wants to be involved, and she felt this would be the best way to do it," said Patrick Leopold, Jenkins' chief of staff.
Jenkins, a Republican from Topeka, represents the 2nd District of Kansas, which includes Lawrence and most of eastern Kansas outside the Kansas City metropolitan area. Before being elected to Congress in 2008, Jenkins served as state treasurer. Before that, she held seats in both the Kansas House and Senate.
Leopold would not say whether the new PAC would be active in the upcoming GOP primaries in Kansas, or whether it would be confined to general election races.
He said Jenkins has just started raising money for the PAC and has collected only a small amount of money, but a fundraiser is planned for April 6 in Topeka.
You had to know it would only be a matter of time. As soon as the Internet started offering online gambling sites, and states like Kansas began legalizing fantasy sports betting, it was only a matter of time before the odds makers in Vegas would figure out a way to tap into the political market.
The truth of the matter is that gambling on the outcome of elections is nothing new. But what is new is the ability to take data from people who are willing to lay down money on the outcome of an election and turn that into a form of crowdsourcing that yields a barometer that appears to be at least as accurate as any other prediction model floating around these days.
So, if you're wondering who the odds-on favorite is to win the White House in November, all you have to do is Google the term "presidential prediction markets" and you get your answer: Democrats stand a 71 percent chance of winning the general election, and right now, Hillary Clinton has roughly a 90 percent chance of being the Democratic nominee.
Put another way, Donald Trump is viewed as having an 80 percent chance of being the Republican nominee, giving Republicans only a 29 percent chance of winning the White House.
That's the current (as of this writing) assessment from the website PredictWise, founded by Microsoft Research economist David Rothschild, which aggregates data from a number of different sites.
One of the sites PredictWise uses goes by a similar name, PredictIt, which gives users the chance to buy, sell and trade shares in the outcome of an electoral event, such as the outcome of a primary, a nomination, or the general election. So, for example, 'Candidate A wins the nomination' would be an event, and traders will speculate on what the percentage chance is of a particular outcome of that event, either "yes" or "no." Percentages are then translated into U.S. cents. The sum total of "yes" and "no" bids add up to $1.
As of Sunday afternoon, people willing to bet money on a "Clinton-Yes" outcome of the general election were buying at 61 cents. People betting on a "Clinton-No" outcome were selling for 39 cents.
To see how accurate that model is, we only have to look back at some recent primaries. Leading up to the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries, PredictIt was forecasting that Trump would win in 10 states and lose only in Texas to that state's favorite son Sen. Ted Cruz. And it showed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio would finish second in the Minnesota caucuses.
PredictIt got every one of those right, except Minnesota, where Rubio eked out a win.
That kind of information can be fun and entertaining, depending on which side of the race you're on, as long as you take it with a grain of salt. There's still a whole lot of race left, and a scandal here, or a misstep there still could greatly affect the outcome. But these prediction markets are also grabbing serious attention from academic circles.
Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis called attention to them during a recent talk he gave to the Douglas County Democratic Party. When I emailed him later to get more information, he suggested the Iowa Electronic Markets, one of the oldest prediction markets around, and one originally set up by academics.
IEM has been around for a few election cycles now, and in 2008 it outperformed all the major public opinion polls for accurately predicting the outcome of the election.
IEM's model, which looks a lot like commodity futures trading, offers two different types of "contracts," or estimates of the outcome: "vote shares," or the percentage of the total popular vote either party will get; and "winner-take-all," which predicts the outcome, regardless of point spread.
At last check, contracts for a Democratic popular vote win in November were trading at 59.8 cents, compared with 40.5 cents for a Republican win.
In the winner-take-all contracts, Democrats were up 71 cents to 31 cents over Republicans.
Prediction markets are essentially a variation on a theme that has been developing in the field of public opinion polling for some time. Originally, pollsters would ask (and still do ask), "Who do you intend to vote for in the upcoming election?" That would give an accurate snapshot in time of where the race stood at that particular moment, but it often had little predictive value because people change their minds.
More recently, pollsters have started asking a different question: "Regardless of who you intend to vote for, who do you think will win the race?" That question turns out to have much more predictive value because it acknowledges the tendency of people, in the end, to gravitate toward the norm. In other words, most people want to be on the winning side.
The new, Web-based prediction markets are another step in that direction because they basically ask, "Regardless of your own opinion, if you were to put actual money on the line, where would you place your bets?" The theory is, people start getting a lot more honest when they have money at stake, even if it's only a couple of bucks.
Bear in mind, however, the old saying in Las Vegas: "All those glitzy casinos weren't built with money people won at the slot machines." Gamblers often have a propensity for losing, so these current market-based predictions should be taken for what they are: predictions. It'll take until November to find out how accurate they are.
If you want to understand the the debate over school finance in Kansas, a shouting match might be the place to start.
A debate on the House floor Thursday briefly erupted into a shouting match as lawmakers were debating a bill that, in essence, makes only minor changes in the way hundreds of millions of dollars are distributed among the state's 286 school districts.
Rep. Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, the House Democratic leader, shouted and pointed his finger directly at Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, calling him "an ideologist (and) a politician" (sic) in response to Whitmer's accusation that, for all their criticisms of the bill, Democrats had not offered a solution of their own.
The ruckus was quickly brought to a halt when Burroughs was called out of order for directing remarks at another member, a violation of House protocol. But the volume of emotion and anger that flared up in that brief moment illustrated just how much is at stake, both legally and politically, in the school finance debate.
The state of Kansas spends more money on K-12 public education than any other single program — roughly $4.6 billion out of a $15.4 billion all-funds budget. Public schools in Kansas employ more than 68,000 teachers, administrators and other staff, and they shape the lives of nearly 487,000 students who are currently enrolled.
The bill passed by the Legislature Thursday involves the shifting of only about $38 million of education funding, less than 1 percent of the total K-12 budget. And yet, the way in which that money is shifted — who receives it and who gives some of it up — may well determine whether the Kansas Supreme Court allows schoolhouse doors to open this fall.
And looming on the horizon is an even more significant question before the court: whether the $4.6 billion is enough to satisfy the Kansas Constitution's mandate that the Legislature "make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state."
To understand why there is so much at stake in the issue, it's necessary to understand the basic elements of school funding and why that seemingly complicated formula was cobbled together in the first place.
The current language in the Constitution was adopted through an amendment that Kansas voters approved in 1966. That was while the state was going through a gut-wrenching process of "unification," merging literally thousands of school systems throughout the state into a collection of "unified school districts" offering a full, standardized K-12 education curriculum.
Before that amendment, each county in Kansas had its own elected superintendent of public instruction. But with the amendment, K-12 education became the responsibility of the state, to be supervised by an elected State Board of Education and the board's appointed commissioner.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the state exercised its power by delegating most of it back to local districts. Funding public schools was still largely a local responsibility. School districts and their elected local boards had virtually unlimited authority to levy local property taxes to fund their programs. The state kicked in only a small amount to supplement their budgets. How much each district got was determined by the number of students enrolled.
By the late 1980s, though, it was apparent that there were huge disparities in the level of funding between wealthy districts and poor ones. Children who grew up in low-income neighborhoods in, for example, Kansas City, Kan., routinely received lower-quality education than children in neighboring Shawnee Mission.
In addition, taxpayers in less wealthy areas routinely paid significantly higher property tax rates than those in wealthier areas because a single mill of property tax in a wealthy area produced vastly more money than a similar mill in a poor community.
In Kansas, and in many other states, plaintiffs began filing constitutional lawsuits. Whenever a state constitution says education is a state responsibility, plaintiffs argued, the state must provide adequate funding for an education, and it must deliver education services equally, on a nondiscriminatory basis.
The 1992 finance formula
Faced with such a lawsuit, the Kansas Legislature adopted an entirely new method of funding in which the state took over primary responsibility for levying taxes, setting the budgets and distributing money to all the school districts, which numbered more than 300 at the time.
Under that system, the state levied a uniform statewide property tax, and it set the general fund budgets of every school district, based on a uniform per-pupil formula.
Those ideas met with stiff resistance at the time on a number of fronts.
Lawmakers from Johnson County and other more affluent suburban communities saw it as a form of "state-mandated mediocrity," putting artificial limits on how much they could spend on their schools to make sure they couldn't be superior to anyone else's schools. Johnson County had grown accustomed to having superior schools. That's what made Johnson County an attractive place to live, especially for middle-class families, and they didn't want to give it up.
Meanwhile, the uniform tax levy was also unpopular in some corners. While it represented a substantial tax cut for most parts of the state, it was a huge tax increase in places like Burlington, home of the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, and southwest Kansas, which was still rich in oil and gas wealth at the time.
And lawmakers from other areas objected because a single, uniform per-pupil funding formula did not take into account the higher cost of educating students from poor neighborhoods and immigrant backgrounds, or the economies of scale enjoyed by large districts compared with smaller ones.
Eventually, lawmakers struck a series of compromises and passed a formula that provided each district with the following:
• General operating fund budgets, based on a "weighted" per-pupil formula that adjusted a district's enrollment based on various cost factors such as low-income status, non English-speaking families, and low total enrollment in the district.
• Local Option Budgets, or LOBs, that gave districts the option, within certain limits, of levying additional taxes to enhance their general fund so they could provide additional programs and services.
• And equalization formulas so that the property tax levies charged at the local level for LOBs, capital outlay funds and debt service funds would be comparable to one another, regardless of the wealth of the district.
Through most of the 1990s, that system remained fairly stable, and the relative economic prosperity that Kansas and the rest of the nation enjoyed made it possible for the Legislature to continue funding it without worry of running the budget into the red.
But that era also marked the rise of a growing conservative movement in Kansas, creating tension between those who wanted to put more money into the base per-pupil formula to keep up with growing costs, and those who thought growing revenues indicated a need for tax cuts.
During that time, base per-pupil funding increased only marginally while the statewide property tax was cut from 35 mills down to its present 20 mills.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to tinker with the weighting formulas, the equalization formulas and the caps on local option budgets in order to satisfy different constituent groups. So by the early 2000s — amid the post 9/11 recession in Kansas that forced cutbacks in state spending — a new group of plaintiffs argued, overall funding had become inadequate, and the same pattern of disparities that prompted the 1992 change in the first place had all re-emerged.
In the landmark case Montoy v. Kansas, a unanimous Supreme Court in 2005 sided with the plaintiffs, ordering an overhaul of the equalization formulas and, more importantly, ordering the Legislature to phase in a $285 million per-year increase in base state aid for public schools.
Then, as now, the court threatened to close public schools if lawmakers refused to comply, saying it would not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional funding system that deprived many students of their right to adequately funded and equalized educational opportunities.
That ignited a firestorm of controversy, and sparked tension between the courts and the Republican-controlled Legislature that still linger today, as evidenced Thursday by the blow-up between Reps. Whitmer and Burroughs on the floor of the Kansas House.
Reluctantly, lawmakers did eventually comply with the Montoy ruling, but things quickly changed again in 2008 with the burst of the housing market bubble that brought down some of the nation's biggest financial institutions, sending the U.S. and global economies spiraling into a Great Recession.
In the face of rapidly declining revenues in 2009, then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, ordered across-the-board cuts in all categories of state spending, including public education, some of which were back-filled with temporary federal assistance through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, part of newly elected President Barack Obama's stimulus plan for the economy.
In 2010, after the Supreme Court declined to reopen the Montoy case, lawyers from that case filed a new lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court, Gannon v. Kansas, which is the case that is still on appeal.
But circumstances have become massively more complicated since then. In November 2010, Republican Sam Brownback was elected governor, bringing with him his own economic plan to stimulate the Kansas economy through a massive series of tax cuts.
And the Legislature itself made things even more complicated when, in 2015, at Brownback's urging, even as the Gannon case was still being litigated, lawmakers repealed the 1992 school finance formula, replacing it for two years with a system of block grants.
Those block grants effectively froze school funding in place, redefined how equalization aid was calculated and consolidated several different kinds of funding into a single grant that school districts could spend as they chose.
In the midst of all that, the Gannon case has essentially been broken into two parts: adequacy and equity.
A three-judge trial court panel has ruled that the block grant system violates both standards: equity, because of the disparities in tax rates levied between rich and poor districts; and adequacy, based on the number and the racial-economic profile of students in Kansas who are still performing below the state's minimum level of expectations.
The Supreme Court still has not reviewed the adequacy question, which could involve an order for hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new funding, at a time when the state is already facing revenue shortfalls.
In February, though, the court upheld the panel on the question of equity, and gave the Legislature until July 1 to come up with a remedy, again saying it would not allow schools to reopen in the fall under an unconstitutional funding mechanism.
The bill that the House and Senate passed Thursday represents the Legislature's answer to that order. The state now waits to see whether it will satisfy the court's demands.
The Kansas House and Senate will face a veritable mountain of bills that are up for debate and final action as they try to wind down the 2016 regular session. But almost none of them deal directly with the two biggest issues confronting the state: a budget crisis that is only growing worse by the day, and a Supreme Court ruling on school finance that threatens to shut down the state's public school system on July 1 if lawmakers fail to act appropriately.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, alluded to the continuing budget problems during remarks Saturday at a breakfast hosted by The Chamber of Lawrence. Even after revenue estimates were revised downward in November, actual tax collections on a month-to-month basis have consistently fallen short of the revised estimates. And it's already looking like March will be no different.
"What I hear too is that March revenues are not coming close to projections," he said. "If that's the case, the current fiscal budget also is going to be impacted."
It is for that reason that there is considerable hall talk around the Statehouse about the possible need for a special session this summer — not to deal with the school finance crisis, which is what has been foremost on most people's minds lately, but to deal with a potentially devastating budget crisis.
Monthly revenue figures are typically released on the first business day of the following month, so we're expecting the official March figures the afternoon of Friday, April 1. But the Kansas Department of Labor probably gave a sneak preview of what those numbers will look like when it released its monthly jobs report on Friday, showing that the Kansas economy shed 1,700 private-sector non-farm jobs in February, bringing the total for the last year to a negative 3,900 jobs.
And that came from a governor's administration that vowed during the 2014 re-election campaign to create 100,000 new jobs during its second term.
Besides the impact on the people and families who lost those jobs, the February job losses are almost sure to have an impact on payroll withholdings in March, which will drag down individual income tax collections. And without those payrolls flowing into people's pocketbooks, it's unlikely that sales tax revenues will come in as projected either.
But that may not be the worst of the story. Budget and tax analysts in the Legislature's nonpartisan Research Department have been saying all year that the months to worry about are yet to come: April, May and June, which make up the last quarter of the fiscal year.
In last year's tax bill, Kansas lawmakers made a number of changes to the tax code. And without getting too far into the weeds of it, much of the anticipated new revenue they expected to generate through those changes won't show up until that final quarter, when people who earn certain kinds of personal income make their quarterly estimated payments.
If that money doesn't come through as expected, analysts have said, Kansas could face a profound fiscal crisis in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. But by that time, lawmakers already will have adjourned the 2016 session, leaving the governor alone to deal with the problem. And depending on how serious the problem is on July 1, the governor's first option may just be to call lawmakers back into special session.
Meanwhile, there is still the school finance issue to worry about.
Recall that in February, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a not-so-subtle threat to close the schoolhouse doors on July 1 if lawmakers do not address the equity issues in the current school funding plan the court said were unconstitutional.
As the Journal-World has been reporting, two bills emerged in the Legislature last week — one in each chamber — that would have restored, and fully funded, the old formula for providing "equalization aid" to local school districts. That was one of the options the court gave the Legislature to resolve the issue.
Bear in mind, this involves only about $38 million out of a $4 billion K-12 education budget. And none of that is actual new spending for schools. Rather, it's property tax relief for those districts, including Lawrence, that the court said were being unfairly over-taxed after the changes to school finance that lawmakers enacted last year.
But there is so much animosity among conservative Republican lawmakers that the House bill died in the Appropriations Committee. The Senate Ways and Means Committee had more luck getting its bill out and sending it to the full Senate for consideration. But it takes the $38 million price tag directly out of base state aid for school districts, effectively cutting every district's spending authority by about 1.5 percent.
Even if that bill were to pass the full Senate, which cannot be assumed, it would still face an uphill battle in the House because a) it cuts overall spending authority for districts, which is certain to be unpopular among constituents during an election year; and b) it's still predicated on restoring the old equalization formula that GOP conservatives say they don't like.
With all that in the background, lawmakers will plow through their pile of bills, mostly on other subjects, this week, with the hope of adjourning the regular session by Thursday. That would enable them to get home in time for the Christian celebration of Good Friday and the rest of the Easter weekend.
From there, they will be out of session for about a month, during which time a group known as the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group will meet and update their projections for state revenues through the end of the next fiscal year. Then lawmakers will return in late April for the final wrap-up session of 2016.
Lawmakers are still hoping for a short wrap-up session so they can begin their reelection campaigns. That's partly because under state law, they are not allowed to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists until after the final "sine die" ceremonial end of the session. But how long the wrap-up may last is still anybody's guess, as are the prospects of a special session after that point.
Democrats call for Hispanic Affairs Commission director to resign over Trump endorsement, but administration says she supports Cruz
Kansas Democrats on Wednesday began circulating an online petition demanding that the executive director of the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission resign over her endorsement of Donald Trump for president.
But Gov. Sam Brownback's spokeswoman said Adrienne Foster was speaking as a private citizen when she made comments supporting Trump to a Kansas City Star reporter and there is no reason for her to step down.
Spokeswoman Eileen Hawley also said that Foster "no longer endorses Mr. Trump. She now endorses Mr. (Texas Sen. Ted) Cruz." But she added that Foster has not made a public announcement of her support for Cruz.
The controversy was ignited by a piece published March 3 by Star columnist Steve Kraske, who had taken to Facebook to find Trump supporters and get them to explain their support. Foster was one of many people, both for and against Trump, who responded.
Trump has stirred controversy on several fronts during his presidential campaign, but he has been a particular lightning rod in the Hispanic community for his derogatory statements about Mexican immigrants and his call for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out.
"As the leader of the KHLAAC, endorsing a man who has referred to Hispanics and Latinos as drug dealers, killers, criminals, and rapists — and who boasts of building a border wall between the United States and Mexico — is irresponsible, unthinkable, and entirely unacceptable," the Kansas Democratic Party said in an email distributed by Rep. Louis Ruiz of Kansas City, the assistant House minority leader.
The Journal-World tried to reach out to Foster for comment, but those questions were referred to the governor's communications director for response.
"Adrienne is entitled to free speech," Hawley said. "She shared her personal opinion on her personal time in her personal capacity, and she has a right to do that."
"Americans have freedom of speech and she didn’t relinquish that by becoming a state employee," she continued. "This shouldn’t be an issue here."
Scores of advocates for public education funding will converge on the Statehouse this week to draw attention to their agenda, but conservatives in the Kansas Legislature are already several steps ahead of them, with a number of education-related bills lined up for hearings and final action.
Advocates organized under the umbrella group Game On for Kansas Schools spent their weekend in what has become an annual ritual, marching through drizzle and rain from Johnson County, Emporia and Manhattan, with plans to converge on the Statehouse on Monday.
The drama takes place against the backdrop of a February Kansas Supreme Court ruling that some of the changes lawmakers made to school funding last year violate the Kansas Constitution’s requirement that state funding for schools be distributed equitably among all the state’s school districts.
The court essentially gave the Legislature two options: go back to the old formula for distributing so-called “equalization aid” for local school districts, money that subsidizes their capital outlay and local option budgets, and provide full funding for that formula; or, option B, come up with some other formula and provide to the court a record of evidence showing why that new formula meets the Kansas Constitution’s requirement for equitable funding.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, House and Senate budget committees will hold hearings on competing bills that aim to do just that. On Tuesday, the House will consider a bill aimed at addressing the first option, one that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman says would cost about $37 million next year. And on Wednesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee will consider an option B plan, which merely redistributes money already appropriated.
As an added incentive, the court has placed a veritable Sword of Damocles over the Legislature’s head by threatening to close public schools on July 1 if the Legislature doesn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to options A or B.
And that may be the focus of discussion Wednesday when the Senate Ways and Means Committee holds hearings on another newly introduced bill — so new, in fact, that it didn’t yet have an assigned bill number and its contents hadn’t yet been published by the weekend — which deals with the subject of “court ordered redistribution of school district funds.”
Lawmakers are now entering the final two-week stretch of the 2016 regular legislative session. They are tentatively scheduled to adjourn March 25, at which point they will break for about a month and return in late April for the final “wrap-up” session.
Here’s a look at some other education-related issues coming up in committees this week:
• On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee could take action on Senate Bill 499, requiring school districts to strategically source specific spend categories through the Department of Administration.
• Also Monday, the House Education Committee takes up Senate Bill 136, which passed the Senate last year, limiting the subjects of contract negotiations between school districts and teachers unions; and House Bill 2486, requiring school districts to get approval from a legislative review board before they can qualify for state aid for bond issues.
The Senate Education Committee is also scheduled to work on a school bond review board bill on Thursday.
• And the House Insurance Committee takes up a bill Thursday that would create a state-based insurance exchange exclusively for retired public employees, many of whom are former teachers, and eliminating their option to continue coverage through the State Employee Health Plan.
When you get elected to the Kansas Legislature, you can introduce any bill you want. And when you're the head of a powerful budget committee, you can be pretty confident that your bill will get a hearing.
But even some Statehouse veterans were a little surprised that Sen. Ty Masterson, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chose to introduce a bill to do away with daylight saving time in Kansas.
Actually, Masterson said during a hearing Thursday that he doesn't care whether we do away with standard time or daylight saving time.
"I would just like to not have the shift," he said. "I'm ready for the clock to stop changing, along with many of my constituents."
According to the website webexhibits.org, daylight saving time began in Europe during World War I as an energy-saving strategy in the winter. By moving clocks forward one hour, offices and factories didn't use as much fuel to light buildings in the late afternoon.
The United States didn't adopt the practice until 1918, but it soon proved to be unpopular, because people in those days rose earlier and went to bed earlier, and it was soon repealed, with a congressional override of President Woodrow Wilson's veto.
During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt reinstated daylight saving time year-round, referring to it as "war time." But there was no federal law mandating it, and so when the war ended in 1945 states were free to keep it or not, and its use was inconsistent across the country.
That apparently caused problems for the broadcasting industry, not to mention airlines and railroads. And so in 1966, Congress adopted the Uniform Time Act, calling for daylight saving time to begin and end on specified days. It's been amended a few times since then, most recently by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, when Congress decided it should run from 2 a.m. on the second Sunday in March (which is this coming Sunday) until 2 a.m. on the first Sunday in November.
States, however, retain the right to exempt themselves from daylight saving time by an act of the legislature.
Masterson said he thinks there's no justification for daylight saving time anymore.
"It's not about whether you're on daylight savings or standard time. It's about messing with clock changes," he said. "There are studies that show productivity changes. There's not an energy value with it anymore. All your tractors have headlights on them; you can get out there and plow in the dark.
"The purposes have changed; the popularity has dropped. States are moving in that direction. And with as many children as I have, I see a lot of production drop that week," he said.
Masterson did acknowledge that one of the biggest reasons to vote against the bill might be the criticism lawmakers will take for dealing with such a trivial matter in the midst of all the other issues facing Kansas.
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, who chairs the Federal and State Affairs Committee where the bill was heard, said he initially didn't think the bill was a priority when Masterson first introduced it last year.
"And then I traveled my district, and people back home have noticed that bill is in my committee, and they're asking me, 'So why don't you at least have a hearing on it?'" Ostmeyer said. "Well, I decided to have the hearing, and now people from home are saying, 'Is that all you guys have to do? Get your butts back home."
Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, said she supported the bill "because I too hate changing."
"Either way, if we can stay the same, I'm very supportive of it," she said.
On the Street: Should Kansas do away with daylight saving time?
Asked Thursday on Massachusetts Street.
After Saturday's caucuses and primaries in Kansas and a few other states, major national news organizations had almost instantaneous analysis, some of which was pretty good.
On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz, who won Kansas by more than a two-to-one margin, clearly emerged as a credible threat to Donald Trump, although it's too soon to completely write off Marco Rubio. John Kasich, on the other hand, might want to think about angling to be somebody's vice president.
And for Democrats, the conventional wisdom seems to be that nothing Bernie Sanders does will ever be good enough. Despite his wins in small, predominantly white states like Kansas and Nebraska (and his home state of Vermont), Hillary Clinton showed in Louisiana that she is still a dominant force in large states with substantial minority populations. And that will count for a lot down the road in places like New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California.
Closer to home, though, I've been sifting through the vote totals and recalling the dozens of conversations I've had with voters in both parties' caucuses in Douglas County, and here are my top five takeaways from the process:
1. Kansas caucus-goers are not very moderate
It's often said that primary elections bring out only the most passionate and motivated of voters, which results in the election of officeholders who are more extreme than the people they represent. Caucuses, even more so.
Well, Kansas just proved that in spades by picking the single most conservative Republican in the field, and probably the single most liberal Democrat to come along since Eugene McCarthy.
That's nothing new for Kansas Republicans, whose last two picks were Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008.
Kansas Democrats, though, have done this only once before, in 2008, when they backed Barack Obama by wide margins. Obama was unchallenged for renomination in 2012.
It's important to remember that high-turnout, competitive caucus races in Kansas are a relatively new thing. Before 2008, both parties here, and especially the Democrats, were content to stay out of the fray and let party leaders choose delegates themselves, and those leaders would often wait until the national race was already decided. Looking back beyond that:
1992, the last Kansas presidential primary, Kansas Democrats went for Bill Clinton; the sitting president at the time, George H.W. Bush, was unopposed for renomination.
1996, Clinton was unopposed for renomination; Kansas Republicans lined up with native son Bob Dole.
2000, Democratic caucuses went for then-Vice President Al Gore, who was virtually unopposed; Republicans chose delegates by state convention and backed George W. Bush.
2004, John Kerry, who was already the clear front-runner, won the Kansas caucuses; incumbent President George W. Bush was unopposed.
2. East and west are very different
For Democrats, voter turnout was highest in the eastern half of the state, where Sanders racked up his biggest numbers. In the 2nd District, which includes Lawrence, Sanders gathered more than 8,000 votes, or 72 percent of the total. He got slightly fewer (7,671) in the 3rd District around Kansas City. In the Big 1st District of western Kansas, he got only 4,074, which was still 69 percent of the total, indicating just how few Democratic voters there are out there. The Wichita-centered 4th District gave him 6,588, or 71 percent of the total.
On the Republican side, Cruz did best in the 4th District, the only district where he won an outright majority, 58 percent. But that came from 7,963 ballots, fewer votes than Sanders got in the 2nd and 3rd Districts. Elsewhere, Cruz received only a plurality of votes: 49 percent in the 1st District; 46 percent in the 2nd District; and 38 percent in the 3rd District.
Out west, Republican caucus-goers outnumbered Democratic voters by more than four to one: 24,061 to 5,907. Not so in the 2nd and 3rd Districts, however, where the numbers were quite a bit closer to each other, although GOP voters still outnumbered Democratic voters by substantial margins. But wait until the end of this post before reading too much into that.
3. Endorsements don't matter as much as grassroots organizing
Marco Rubio barnstormed Kansas the day before the caucus, carrying a list of endorsements from elected Republican officials as long as your arm, including Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. He finished a distant third, with only 17 percent of the vote.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton had endorsements from many notable Kansas Democrats, including former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and former state party chairwoman Joan Wagnon. She finished with only 32 percent of the vote.
What Sanders and Cruz both had, stretching back months before the caucuses, were grassroots organizations working on their behalf.
Anybody who had driven around Lawrence counting yard signs, bumper stickers and lapel buttons should have seen from a mile away that Sanders had the bigger base of support here. The only question was whether the millennial generation voters would actually turn out for caucuses the same way 18- to 24-year-old voters did eight years ago for Obama. They did.
Similarly, Cruz had been building county and local-level ground organizations for months leading up to the caucuses. And having a guy like Rep. Mark Kahrs, of Wichita, a locally popular evangelical Christian conservative, as his state coordinator had to have helped Cruz in the 4th District, just as it helped Kahrs get elected GOP National Committeeman from Kansas.
4. It helps, some, to campaign here
It shouldn't escape notice that Sanders campaigned here twice, albeit once a couple of miles on the other side of the state line. Still, a lot of Sanders supporters from as far away as Lawrence and Topeka made their way into Kansas City, Mo., for his first appearance. And his rally in Lawrence the Thursday before the caucuses was a big success for him. Sanders was also all over the airwaves in Kansas in the week leading up to the caucuses, and he had fliers stuffing mail boxes of Democratic and unaffiliated voters all over the state.
Clinton, by contrast, had field organizers working in several parts of the state. But she never appeared here, and her advertising campaign was all but nonexistent.
Oddly, none of the Republican candidates did much radio or TV advertising either, but the top three at least made personal appearances. In addition to Rubio's three-city tour on Friday, Cruz made a couple of stops, including one Wednesday in Overland Park and another Saturday morning in Wichita.
Trump's one and only appearance in the state, on Saturday morning in Wichita, had the appearance of something his campaign put together on the fly, either because internal polling started showing him in trouble here, or he just wanted an excuse to back out of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., which wasn't going to be a friendly audience.
5. Caucuses are bad
The final lesson from the 2016 Kansas caucuses, and here I'm going to express personal bias: Caucuses are a lousy way of doing business.
It's easy to see how parties and candidates like them. Not only do they bring people together in one place and get them to interact with one another, they're a very handy tool with which to harvest names, email addresses and cellphone numbers from your most ardent voters.
From the voters' perspective, though, they can be quite inconvenient, if not downright frustrating. I was a bit surprised by the number of Republican voters at Southwest Middle School who openly expressed utter frustration at the whole process: the amount of time they spent listening to speeches; the long lines of people waiting just to get checked in. And all that on a Saturday, when busy people with busy lives have a multitude of other chores to do as well.
But that was nothing compared to the ordeal Democrats went through. At Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, the line to get inside the building and get checked in stretched out the door and around the block on both sides. By 3 p.m., when people were supposed to be in place already, there were still scores of people in line waiting to get in.
And inside the building it was even worse, with hundreds upon hundreds of people packed into both gymnasiums, with no air-conditioning or ventilation running, where they sat — or in most cases, stood — for hours waiting to be counted. There were so many people there that hundreds more had to park themselves outside on the school's track and field area waiting to be counted.
Fortunately, it was a lovely day, so the people outside were generally having a good time. But imagine if it had been raining, or even snowing.
Officials from both parties said they chose to hold caucuses on Saturday to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. But any convenience that came with a Saturday date, coupled with the nice weather, was easily offset by the arduous procedures the parties put in place.
According to vote tallies from the two parties, 112,159 Kansans took part in the Republican and Democratic caucuses. There are more than 1.7 million registered voters in Kansas. That's a participation rate of roughly 6 percent.
Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature have lower approval ratings in Kansas than President Barack Obama, according to a recent poll from Fort Hays State University.
In fact, of all the public institutions and elected officials asked about in the poll, the one with the highest approval rating was one that Brownback and lawmakers spend a great deal of time attacking: the Kansas Supreme Court.
That may not be saying much, given that only 45 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the Supreme Court. But at least it was higher than the 25 percent approval rating for the Legislature, or Brownback's 21 percent rating.
By comparison, in the solidly Republican state of Kansas, 34 percent said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with President Obama.
That may be of interest to Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has been touting endorsements from Brownback and other GOP officeholders in the state leading up to Saturday's Republican caucuses.
Those were just some of the findings in the survey by FHSU's Docking Institute of Public Affairs leading up to Saturday's Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses in Kansas.
In addition, in the survey of voters' presidential favorites, which was released last week, the Docking Institute asked about a wide range of political and social issues. And, similar to the Kansas Speaks survey from last fall, it showed most Kansans are much more moderate in political ideology than their elected leaders.
The survey sampled 440 Kansas adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Among the issues specific to Kansas:
• 77 percent said funding for public schools in Kansas generally should increase, and 63 percent want increased funding for their own local schools.
• Two-thirds (66 percent) oppose the Legislature's decision to allow concealed carry of handguns without a permit or training requirements. Nearly half (49 percent) said they strongly oppose that decision.
• Only 23 percent said they are "extremely" or "very" concerned that a terrorist attack will occur in Kansas, while 49 percent said they are "somewhat" concerned, and 28 percent said they are not concerned at all.
However, when it comes to allowing Middle Eastern refugees fleeing war and persecution to come to Kansas, the poll showed Kansans' attitudes line up pretty well with their elected leaders: 51 percent oppose such a policy, while only 36 percent support it.
The survey also asked about several national political issues. And again, it showed most Kansans to be more moderate, or even liberal, than their elected Republican leaders.
• Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) said taxes should be raised on the nation's top income earners, and more than half (57 percent) said large corporations should pay more in taxes.
• Concern about the federal budget deficit was split about evenly, with one-third saying they are "extremely" or "very" concerned about it; another third saying they're "somewhat" concerned; and about a third saying they're not concerned at all.
• More than half (53 percent) said they would support allowing a pathway to citizenship for illegal or undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record. But a sizable number, 23 percent, support deporting all undocumented immigrants.
• And nearly half (48 percent) said they oppose defunding Planned Parenthood, while only 35 percent support it. The other 18 percent had no opinion either way.
The question is often asked how the political views of elected officials be so different from those of the people they represent.
The answer appears to be simple. "Average" Kansans don't vote in primary elections where candidates are selected. Only the most passionate and partisan voters do.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, filed for re-election Monday by submitting his paperwork at the Douglas County Courthouse.
Sloan, who was first elected in 1994, will be running for his 12th term in the Legislature. He represents the 45th District, which includes the western fringe of Lawrence, the city of Lecompton and portions of rural western Douglas County.
He is currently vice chairman of the House Vision 2020 Committee, which deals mainly in long-term planning on major policy issues. He was demoted from being chairman of that committee last year because of his work pushing a bill to expand the state's Medicaid program, something strongly opposed by the conservative leadership of the House.
“If re-elected, I will continue my work to appropriately support K-12 and higher education, ensure the health of our state’s drinking water supply, lakes and rivers, protect and expand our safety-net health care system and promote responsible energy policies," Sloan said. "I will also continue my efforts to restore an equitable tax system that will enable us to invest in education, infrastructure and economic opportunities in our state.”
So far, Sloan and Democratic Rep. Barbara Ballard are the only members of the Lawrence-area delegation who have filed for re-election
Ballard, who filed in January, will be seeking her 13th term in the House. She represents the 44th District, which includes much of the west side of Lawrence between Iowa Street and Wakarusa Drive.
Ballard also has a primary challenger this year. Steven X. Davis, a freelance writer, copy editor and math tutor in Lawrence, also has filed in that race.
Clinton campaign sends faulty mailer in Douglas County
Some Democratic voters in Douglas County recently received a letter bearing the signature of former President Bill Clinton, urging them to support his wife, Hillary Clinton, in the upcoming caucuses on Saturday. The only problem: The letter contained the wrong address for their caucus site.
The letter went out to some Democratic voters in the 3rd State Senate District, which includes Baldwin City, Eudora and most of eastern Douglas County. The caucus site for those voters is Eudora High School, 2203 Church St.
The letter, however, incorrectly listed an address in Topeka, which is actually the caucus location for another state Senate district.
Gavin Young, a spokesman for the Hillary for America campaign in Kansas, said the incorrect address came from an early data file that was sent from the Kansas Democratic Party. The correct address has since been updated on the party's website.
"The campaign is reaching out to all the people who received that letter," Young said. "Eudora High School is the correct site. The address on the letter was not."
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Monday announced his endorsement of New York billionaire Donald Trump for president, while State Treasurer Ron Estes fell in line with most other elected GOP officials endorsing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Kobach became the first major elected state official to endorse Trump, but his announcement came on the heels of endorsements from two other "establishment" Republicans, former candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Kobach, who has built his political career on his strident stands against illegal immigration, said that is his paramount concern in the 2016 elections.
“For me, the most important issue in the Republican presidential contest is immigration and its effect on our national security," Kobach said. "On that issue Mr. Trump stands head and shoulders above the other candidates. He has made it clear that ramping up the enforcement of our immigration laws will be his top priority. And he has forcefully rejected the notion of giving amnesty to illegal aliens living in the United States.”
Estes, who has maintained a much lower public profile than Kobach since taking office in 2011, said one of his duties as treasurer is administering the state's 529 higher education savings program, and he said he believes Rubio is the better candidate to address the rising cost of higher education.
"We must move beyond the idea of throwing more federal money at the problem and encourage a national conversation about the appropriate career education at the appropriate cost," he said. "More than any other candidate, Marco Rubio has shown a passion for reining in the rising cost of higher education. Marco continuously demonstrates a desire to modernize an education system that has left far too many students unable to start their adult lives on solid financial footing."
Most other elected Republican officials in Kansas, including Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, have thrown their support behind Rubio. Others, including 1st District Congressman Tim Huelskamp, have endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Second District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, whose district includes Lawrence, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran have not endorsed any of the current candidates, although Jenkins was an early supporter of Carly Fiorina, who has since dropped out of the GOP race.
On the Democratic side, former Gov. and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has thrown her support behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But a poll by Fort Hays State University last week showed the largest segment of Kansas voters in both parties were still undecided a week out from the March 5 caucuses.
A few people laughed last week when I wrote that the timing of the KU vs. Iowa State men's basketball game could affect Democratic caucus turnout on March 5, but it's not a joke anymore. Now it's turning into a protest.
A group called "KU Game Change for the Caucus" has formed on Facebook and is planning a protest at 4 p.m. Monday at Wescoe Beach on the Kansas University campus. They're protesting ESPN's decision to schedule the game for 3 p.m. Saturday, the same time Democrats across the state begin caucusing.
"A huge number employees of KU are put in the position of choosing to attend work or exercise their right to vote," the group posted. "KU is a public institution with a mandate to support the participation of its students and faculty in important public events like elections. Any and all policy that creates such conflicts in the integrity of this institution requires exposure and immediate amendment."
And KU isn't the only school in Kansas having that issue. The K-State Wildcats also play their final, albeit nonconference, game of the regular season that day, taking on Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 2:05 p.m.
Republican caucus-goers won't have such conflicts because their balloting is expected to be over by 2 p.m. And because they vote by simple ballots, most GOP voters should be able to get in and out within a few minutes.
But the Democrats' process is a little more complicated. It requires people to be in place at 3 p.m. and physically huddle together in groups to be counted. Once a preliminary count is taken, they're allowed to move from one camp to another before they make a final decision. Then they sign a registry attesting to which candidate they supported.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the game conflicts work to the disadvantage of Bernie Sanders, who has drawn heavy support from first-time college-age voters. But if the over-40 voters decide that watching a game on TV is more important than caucusing, it could also cut equally into Hillary Clinton's base.
We'll wait to hear if ESPN changes its schedule, or if the universities themselves ask for a change.
Democrats identify nine GOP seats for possible upsets
It's not often that political party officials tip their hand so early in an election cycle by publicly disclosing where they plan to invest resources, but that's what happened Saturday at the Kansas Democratic Party's state convention in Topeka where House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City went through the list, seat by seat, putting GOP incumbents, as well as the Republican Party itself, on notice about where they will need to respond.
The list shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It's based on the same voting data that Kansas University political science professor Patrick Miller has been writing about, and which has been covered extensively in state media, including the Journal-World: Districts that Republicans won narrowly in 2014 but also were carried by Democrat Paul Davis in the gubernatorial race, and where President Barack Obama did better than expected in 2008 and 2012. They also looked at voter registration by party in each district, and the GOP incumbent's voting records on key issues.
For the record, GOP officials have said that's pretty much the same thing they've been doing to identify the places where they think they'll need to play defense.
Speaking to a luncheon audience Saturday afternoon, Burroughs said the party had identified "the 15 most vulnerable incumbents. But acknowledging that Democrats have limited resources, Burroughs said he has narrowed the list down to "eight to 10 targets, with an expectation that we will win five to seven."
After listing the 15 districts, Burroughs then identified nine seats that are priorities for Democrats, some of which do not yet have announced Democratic candidates yet. They are:
- District 3 in southeast Kansas, currently held by Republican Chuck Smith of Pittsburg. Davis won the district in 2014 by 2.3 percentage points. Burroughs said Democrats have "a very strong candidate" who will announce later this spring.
- District 16 in Johnson County, currently held by Rep. Amanda Grosserode of Lenexa, a Tea Party conservative who is endorsing Ted Cruz for president. Davis carried the district in 2014. Democrat Cindy Holscher of Overland Park has filed to challenge her.
- District 18 in Johnson County, currently held by Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee, chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. Davis carried the district by 2.5 percentage points. No one has filed to run against him but Burroughs said, "we have a number of strong candidates considering that seat."
- District 29 in Johnson County, currently held by Republican James Todd of Overland Park. Davis won the district by 6.3 percentage points. No one has filed in that race, but Burroughs said a teacher named Brett Parker has announced plans to run.
- District 41 in Leavenworth County, currently held by Republican Tony Barton, an African-American pastor who was among the nine House Republicans on the House Education Committee who signed a formal complaint last year against Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, for referring to a bill as bigoted and an example of "institutional racism." The district leans slightly Republican. No one has filed in that district and Burroughs did not indicate whether anyone was intending to file.
- District 56 in Shawnee County, currently held by Republican Lane Hemsley of Topeka. Not only did Davis carry the district in 2014, but Obama carried it in both 2008 and 2012. Hemsley won a tight race in 2014 by a mere 40 votes. "We will have a candidate in that seat," Burroughs said.
- District 88 in Wichita, currently held by Republican Joe Scapa who won his race in 2014 by only 28 votes. Davis carried the district in 2014 and Obama carried it in both 2008 and 2012. Elizabeth Bishop, a neighborhood activist in Wichita, has announced plans to challenge Scapa for the seat but has not yet officially filed.
- District 98 in Wichita, currently held by Republican Steven Anthimides. That district trends Republican, but Anthimides won in 2014 by only 129 votes. Justin Kraemer, a former Wichita TV news anchor, has announced he will run in that race.
- And District 102 in Reno County, currently held by Republican (and former Democrat) Jan Pauls, who switched parties in 2014 after holding the seat for 20 years as a Democrat due to her differences with the party on issues including gay rights and abortion. Burroughs said Democrat Patsy Terrell of Hutchinson has announced plans to run against her.
That leaves six Republicans on the 15 "most vulnerable" list that are not currently being targeted. They are: Rep. Michael Houser of Columbus; Rep. Erin Davis of Olathe; Rep. Brett Hildabrand of Shawnee; Rep. John Bradford of Lansing; Rep. Ken Corbet of Topeka; and Rep. J.R. Claeys of Salina.
Democrats clarify caucus rules
Kansas Democrats were forced to clarify their caucus voting rules over the weekend because of recent changes in federal voter registration forms, and the litigation surrounding that change.
In a nutshell, said Sen. Marci Francisco, who has been organizing the party's caucus plan, any voter can participate in the caucus if they register as a Democrat. Forms will be available at the caucus sites for people to register, or change their party affiliation. And while the party will not ask for proof of U.S. citizenship, new voters will be advised that they may be asked for citizenship proof to complete their registrations. But that won't stop them from participating in the March 5 caucus.
The only exception to the rule, she said, is that the party will not allow votes from registered Republicans who also voted in the Republican caucuses earlier in the day, although it was not clear how the party would determine that.
Also, people who are not yet 18, but who will be by the time of the Nov. 8 general election, will also be allowed to participate.
Kansas will send 37 delegates to the Democratic National Convention July 25-28 in Philadelphia, but only 22 of those are up for grabs in Saturday's caucuses, and they will be allotted to each of the candidates in proportion to the number of votes they receive within each of the state's four congressional districts. The remaining 15 delegates are reserved for party officials, Francisco said, and they may be free to support whomever they choose at the convention.
That's different from the Republican caucuses in which all 40 delegates from Kansas will be distributed proportionately on the basis of the popular caucus vote, according to state GOP executive director Clay Barker.
The Republican National Convention will be held July 18-21 in Cleveland.