Entries from blogs tagged with “politics”
The Kansas House plans to debate both a new tax bill and the long-awaited new school finance plan on Wednesday as the 2017 legislative session goes into its 100th day.
House and Senate tax negotiators agreed around 8 p.m. Tuesday to put yet another tax package up for a vote. The latest version is smaller than the one the House rejected Monday night that would have rolled back many of the income tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012, generating in excess of $600 million a year in new income tax revenue.
Instead, the latest proposal from House Republican leaders would generate less than $500 million a year through a combination of smaller income tax hikes, an increase in liquor taxes and the repeal of some sales tax exemptions on services.
“I understand that you want to test the temperature again in the House. We are more than willing to allow that,” Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson of Parker said in accepting the House’s offer.
But it remained unclear Tuesday night whether the new, smaller plan could get enough votes to pass the House. And even if it does, it may face stiff opposition in the Senate, which has never debated nor even held hearings on some of the elements in the new plan.
The plan also would require lawmakers to delay some payments into the state pension plan in order to close the projected revenue shortfalls over the next two years. Also, any additional money needed to fund a new school finance plan would have to be raised in separate legislation.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have said they want to separate the issues of funding schools and funding the rest of the budget. But Democrats and many moderate Republicans have said they want a single tax bill that provides a long-term structural fix to the state’s revenue shortfalls.
Democrats and moderates also have said they would prefer to vote on a school finance package first, so they have a better idea of how big of a tax increase will be needed for the next two years. But GOP leaders, hoping to limit the size of the tax increase, so far have insisted on resolving the tax debate first.
It was not clear Tuesday night whether House leaders would allow the school finance debate to occur Wednesday afternoon if the tax bill fails in the morning.
The school finance plan would reinstate a kind of per-pupil formula similar to the one lawmakers repealed in 2015, setting base state aid at $4,006 per-pupil, with weightings added to certain categories of students to reflect the higher cost of educating low-income and bilingual students.
Overall it would add $180 million in new school funding in the 2017-2018 school year, followed by another $100 million increase the year after that. The per-pupil formula would then be adjusted with inflation in each subsequent year.
Public education advocates have said they think that’s too little, and they are hoping to amend the bill on the House floor to provide more funding.
GOP leaders, however, are expected to invoke a rule to prevent amendments that would add more spending. The so-called pay-as-you-go rule, or “PAY-Go” prohibits adding expenditures to an appropriations bill once it has come out of committee unless equal or greater cuts are made somewhere else as part of the same amendment.
Those who want to add more spending, however, argue that the majority of the bill’s subject matter deals with education policy, so the PAY-Go rule should not apply. It’s an issue that will be decided by whichever side can muster 63 votes to either apply or not apply the rule.
Lawmakers are coming under increasing pressure to break the logjam and finish out the session quickly. Tom Day, director of the Department of Legislative Administrative Services, said Tuesday that lawmakers are on the verge of exhausting their budget for this legislative session. In fact, much of the Legislature’s seasonal clerical staff was discontinued back on May 5. The only clerical staff still in the building are those assigned to the major tax, budget and school finance committees.
Day said he has already notified House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle that there are only a few more days worth of money in the budget to continue the session. If the session does continue, though, he said there are limited funds that can be shifted from other parts of the Legislature’s budget.
Other action Tuesday
Meanwhile on Tuesday, lawmakers passed and sent to Gov. Sam Brownback a few minor bills. Most of the day, though, was spent with House Republican leaders huddling behind closed doors, trying to regroup after Monday’s failed attempt to pass a tax bill.
The Senate gave final passage to House Bill 2277, which some people have started calling the “street party bill.” It allows cities and counties to designate “common consumption areas” where people can drink alcohol without having to remain inside the establishment where they purchased the drink.
It came mainly at the request of the city of Lenexa, which is developing a new “City Center” project that will feature a number of small retail establishments sharing a common courtyard. The idea is that people can buy pizza from one place, beer or wine at another, and sit at tables in the courtyard area.
But it could also be for temporary festivals or special events. So if the city of Lawrence, for example, wanted to block off part of Massachusetts Street on a night when the Jayhawks are in a major game, the bill would provide for that. However, drink cups would have to bear the name of the establishment that sold the drink, and bar owners would be liable for any violations that occur off of their premises but within the common consumption area.
The bill originally passed the House on April 3, 114-11. The Senate added a few unrelated amendments, one of which eliminates the 10-day waiting period for membership in a private club, then passed it on May 16, 35-5. The House on Tuesday concurred in the Senate changes, 97-22.
The Senate, meanwhile, gave final passage to a bill dealing with the state pension system and working after retirement. Generally, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System frowns on “double-dipping,” when someone retires to collect their KPERS benefits and then goes back to work at a job that no longer contributes into KPERS. But a number of public agencies, school districts in particular, say they sometimes have no choice but to hire retired employees for certain hard-to-fill positions, such as math or special education teachers.
Senate Bill 21 cleans up existing law governing working after retirement. One of the key parts is that starting Jan. 1, retirees under age 62 will have to wait 180 days before returning to work, and there can be no prearranged agreement about returning to work. Retirees over age 62 would only have to wait 60 days. There are other provisions dealing with how much the retiree is allowed to earn, and how much the employer needs to pay into KPERS while the retiree is working.
The Kansas House and Senate adjourned Friday despite earlier vows that they planned to work seven days a week through the end of the session.
That decision came after a week in which lawmakers made virtually no progress toward passing a budget, a school finance plan or a tax package needed to fund both of those.
Both chambers have been locked in a stalemate for weeks over the order in which those issues should be debated. Democrats and moderate Republicans, who can form governing majorities in both chambers, have insisted on putting the budget and school finance first so they will know how big of a tax package is needed. But the more conservative Republican leaders in both chambers insist on settling tax policy first in order to put limits around the cost of the budget and school finance.
A House committee advanced its version of a school finance bill earlier in the week, but House leaders have not put that on the calendar for debate.
On Friday, though, Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, the House Democratic leader, tried to invoke a procedure that would have forced that bill onto the floor for immediate debate. But his motion, which needed at least 70 votes to pass, garnered only 39.
"It is Day 95, the 19th day of this veto session, and the most important issue is schools," Ward said afterward. "So the question is, why not today?"
Republicans, however, said there were plenty of reasons not to vote on it Friday. They argued that the bill had just come out of committee, and many members wanted to go home for the weekend to discuss it with constituents before voting.
In addition, many members on both sides of the aisle are still having amendments drafted that they want to offer on the floor. But that process was unexpectedly interrupted Friday when the offices of the Legislative Research Department in the basement of the Statehouse were flooded after a drain pipe leaked during heavy thunderstorms Thursday night and early Friday morning.
Ward also tried Friday to force debate on another major issue that leaders have kept off the floor, concealed firearms on college campuses and at state psychiatric hospitals and other publicly owned health care facilities.
Starting July 1, under a law passed in 2013, those institutions will be required to allow concealed-carry in their buildings unless they provide metal detectors and armed security guards in those buildings that can adequately prevent anyone else from bringing weapons inside.
During debate Friday over a bill dealing with consumer protection, Ward offered an amendment that included language from a bill that failed to get out of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee that would permanently exempt those institutions from the law.
But Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs that committee, objected to the amendment, saying it was out of order because it wasn't reasonably related to the underlying bill. He also said there were other bills pending on the calendar that would be more appropriate for such an amendment, but that in the meantime negotiations were still taking place between gun rights advocates and those who oppose concealed-carry in public facilities to come up with compromise language that could pass both chambers and that Gov. Sam Brownback would sign.
Ward, however, said he did not believe GOP leaders had any intention of allowing a debate on gun policy this session, and he did not think behind-the-scenes negotiations were necessary.
"I don't think the NRA should dictate gun safety in our state, and that's what's going on behind closed doors right now," he said, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has strongly opposed any attempt to roll back the 2013 law.
After his motion was ruled out of order, Ward offered another motion to overturn the ruling of the chair. But that motion failed when the House voted on a 72-42 vote to sustain the ruling that his motion was out of order.
"The reason his motions fail is because people want to compromise," said Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican. "They don't want a nine-hour debate where everybody just starts bringing every wacky amendment ... but these things never happen quick. When the original gun debate happened, it wasn't quick."
Friday marked the 95th day of the session, and lawmakers budgeted this year to go no longer than 100 days, which would be Wednesday of next week. But few people in the Statehouse believe they can wrap up their work in that short time.
Friday also marked the last day of class for many school districts in the state, which means they now go into their summer vacations without having any idea how much money they'll have to work with next year or how many teachers and administrators they can afford to employ.
The Kansas Supreme Court has given the Legislature until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to pass a constitutional school funding system that meets the court's tests for both adequacy and equity. The court also has threatened to close the public school system starting July 1 if lawmakers fail to meet that deadline.
That would bring summer school programs to a halt, as well as summer meal programs that serve hundreds of thousands of free meals throughout the state to low-income children during the summer.
WSU economists forecast flat job growth in Kansas in 2017; state-led recession ‘potentially around the corner’
Economists at Wichita State University released a new economic forecast for Kansas on Wednesday, saying they expect employment to grow only half a percent in 2017.
"Unlike the U.S. economy, the Kansas economy may have reached its peak,” said Jeremy Hill, director of WSU's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, which published the report. “There are now multiple signs of an economy that is losing steam. Although the forecast calls for employment growth at half of the rate over the past five years, increased caution should be added as a state-led recession is potentially around the corner.”
That would be disappointing on many levels, most notably among people out there looking for jobs. But it's also a dark omen for the Kansas Legislature, which needs to put together a tax package that can produce revenues that grow over time in order to fund regular increases to public schools.
Here's the first problem: The state of Kansas gets the bulk of all the money it spends from three sources of revenue: income taxes, both individual and corporate; sales taxes; and property taxes.
Nearly all of the property taxes that the state raises, the statewide 20-mill levy, goes directly to public schools. And in the last fiscal year, income and sales taxes accounted for 85 percent of all the other taxes the state collected for its general fund.
Here's the second problem: None of those revenue sources has been growing at the kind of rate needed to sustain long-term growth in the cost of government services, particularly education services.
The WSU report came out the same day that the Pew Charitable Trusts issued a report showing that total revenue in most states dipped in the second and third quarters of 2016, but still exceeded their pre-Great Recession peaks. But as the chart below shows, total revenue in Kansas has never caught up to that peak set in the first quarter of 2008.
State budget officials have been telling lawmakers for months that sales taxes have been basically flat for the last couple of years and are expected to remain flat into the foreseeable future.
That's due to a lot of things — people avoiding sales taxes by shopping online or across the state border; and general "deflation" in the price of consumer goods that the state levies its sales tax on, which in turn is probably due to the increasingly global nature of the world's economy and the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries.
That's one of the reasons that Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, cited Wednesday when he proposed levying a fee on monthly utility bills. But even if that were to pass, that too is a revenue stream that will only grow as the population grows, and that's something else that's been kind of stagnant in Kansas.
But it's also the reason why lawmakers are now considering extending the sales tax to certain parts of the service sector, the one fastest growing sector of the economy, and the sector that WSU says will outpace all the others in job growth this year.
Meanwhile, according to data from the Kansas Department of Revenue's Property Valuation Division, assessed real estate values in Kansas have grown only about 3 percent a year, on average, for the last three years. That is, however, an improvement over the 1.3 percent growth in 2013 and 0.6 percent growth in 2012.
Much of that growth, it should be noted has been attributable to Johnson and Douglas counties. Most of the rest of Kansas has seen flat or declining property value, especially in rural areas where oil and gas production account for a large part of their property valuation base.
So, absent any kind of real estate "boom" on the horizon, which appears unlikely, or a reversal in the downward trend in the price of consumer goods, which is also unlikely, Kansas needs steady and sustained growth in the one major revenue stream left: income taxes.
And that's why the WSU forecast, if accurate, portends problems for state government.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said Thursday that there would be no more business on the floor of the Senate this week, but that starting Monday the Senate would work seven days a week through the end of the session.
The Senate will hold a "pro forma" session Friday so it can receive messages from the House or the governor, but that does not require a quorum of senators to be present. Some senators who serve on committees or conference committees meeting Friday also will have to show up, but the other senators can enjoy an unplanned three-day weekend, which includes Mother's Day on Sunday.
Denning, an Overland Park Republican, made that announcement at the end of a short work day in which the Senate passed two noncontroversial conference committee bills, including one dealing with human trafficking.
The announcement came one day after the Senate failed to pass a tax bill that would have rolled back many of Gov. Sam Brownback's signature income tax cuts from 2012. It would have raised a little over $1 billion in new revenue over the next two years.
Most Democrats and conservative Republicans opposed the bill, albeit for different reasons. Democratic leaders have been holding out on supporting any tax bill until lawmakers pass a school funding formula, arguing that they need to know how much it will take to fund schools before they vote on a tax bill.
Denning, however, seems poised now to work with conservatives on a smaller bill that he says Brownback will either sign or let become law without his signature.
Besides a tax package, lawmakers must pass a school finance formula by June 30 that complies with a Kansas Supreme Court order to provide adequate and equitable funding for public schools. They also have to pass a two-year spending plan for the rest of state government.
The House, by contrast, plans to debate four bills on Friday, including one establishing a Foster Care Task Force that will review the Department for Children and Families' management of the foster care system and make recommendations for improvement.
LaTurner names staff
Newly minted State Treasurer Jake LaTurner announced two new staff picks Thursday, including one who currently serves as assistant deputy director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, Peter Northcott.
Northcott was named to the post of deputy treasurer. LaTurner also named Braden Dreiling as director of public relations.
LaTurner did not mention Northcott's ties to Kansans for Life in the press release announcing the appointments, but Northcott lists that as his current position on his LinkedIn page. He is also listed as a registered lobbyist for that group on the Kansas Secretary of State's website. Before taking that job this year, he served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, who was defeated for re-election in 2016.
In 2011 and 2012 he served as a legislative liaison in Brownback's office.
"Peter and Braden both have experience in government and private businesses," LaTurner's press release stated. "They both began their professional careers working in the Statehouse for government officials. Peter holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Kansas, and Braden holds a degree in Political Science and is expected to complete his Masters in Business Administration in 2018, both from Fort Hays State University."
Dreiling worked in 2012 and 2013 as field director for the campaign of former Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, who is now a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, according to Dreiling's LinkedIn page. He then moved to Bruce's office, where he was caucus liaison until last year. He currently works as digital marketing manager for Aldersgate Village, a retirement community in Topeka.
Tuesday marked the 85th day of the 2017 legislative session, and it was yet another day when virtually no progress was made toward solving the state's looming budget crisis or answering the Kansas Supreme Court's order to improve public school funding.
Although a House committee working on a school funding plan met for more than three hours Tuesday, it still has not finalized the bill that will eventually go to the full House. The panel plans to meet again Wednesday.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who serves on that committee, said Tuesday that she believes the group is making progress but admitted the process is taking longer than expected. She stressed, though, that the bill deals with complex and substantial issues about education policy that she says need to be thoroughly vetted before sending the bill out.
Meanwhile on the Senate side, a similar committee plans to meet Wednesday for the first time since the wrap-up session began May 1.
Neither chamber, however, is focusing on the two other big issues: passing a two-year spending plan for the rest of state government, and coming to agreement on a tax package to fund it.
During a caucus meeting of Senate Republicans Tuesday, Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, indicated there hasn't been a lot of movement on those issues in recent days, and there are don't seem to be any plans to work on those issues for the next few days.
The Senate budget committee has passed out its two-year budget plan, but Denning hasn't put that bill on the debate calendar yet.
On the tax front, a Senate committee sent out a bill Monday that would only repeal a portion of Gov. Sam Brownback's favored exemption for nonwage business income, which would generate far less than what the state needs to structurally balance its budget. And that same panel is working on a modified version of a "flat" tax bill similar to the one that only received three votes earlier in the session.
Neither of those two bills is thought to have much of a chance of passing either chamber.
Part of the stalemate stems from the fact that Democrats and moderate Republicans don't want to vote on a tax package until after they pass a school funding plan so they will know how much money is needed to balance the budget.
Estimates on that range from $1 billion to $2 billion over two years, depending on the size of the final school funding plan, plus whether lawmakers want to fully fund the state pension system and whether they want to avoid having to sweep more money out of the state highway fund.
Both chambers have developed a daily routine of coming into session at 10 a.m. to pass ceremonial resolutions, then coming in again around 2 p.m. to vote on minor bills coming out of conference committees. But that schedule seems to be more about making sure lawmakers stay in the building at least most of the day. Otherwise, the vast majority of rank-and-file members who don't serve on school finance, tax or budget committees really would have little incentive to show up each day.
In fact, members of the House and Senate committees that deal with financial institutions and insurance plan to spend the better part of Wednesday out of the building on a Kansas Bankers Association-sponsored field trip to the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, Mo.
"To me, that's very untimely and unwise because we've got much bigger things to do with our time than to take a field trip to Kansas City," Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said.
House Republican leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said the lack of progress has started to frustrate some members. But he said both chambers need to see the final version of the school finance plan before they can deal with taxes and the rest of the budget.
Kansas lawmakers made little progress Thursday toward resolving a stalemate over tax policy, but the House tax committee got a look at some new numbers that illustrate the depths of the state's impending budget crisis.
In short, the committee was told, they will need to raise about $1.5 billion in new revenue over the next two years if they want to fund everything currently in the House's draft budget, plus fully fund payments into the state's pension system and pay for the draft school finance plan that adds $150 million each year in base per-pupil spending.
And even with that, the state would still need to sweep nearly $300 million out of the highway program each year to balance the budget. So, put another way, that brings the full budget shortfall to a little more than $2 billion over the next two years.
"It's nice to think we could get one package that addresses this," Chairman Steven Johnson of Assaria said after the meeting. "Doing the math on how we pass a package, or multiple packages, unfortunately I think we've discovered we may have a ways to go to get to whatever that looks like."
Johnson's committee met at the end of a day in which there was virtually no progress toward finding a tax package that could get enough votes to overcome an all-but-certain veto by Gov. Sam Brownback.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, both chambers abruptly called off scheduled votes on tax proposals that only added up to about $1 billion or less over the next two years. The House-Senate conference committee that produced those bills was scheduled to meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, but that meeting was cancelled early Thursday morning, and by the end of the day it had not been rescheduled.
Instead, the full House and Senate tax committees met separately to look over budget numbers and start discussions about other tax options.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks so far has been that Democrats, along with many moderate Republicans, don't want to vote on a tax plan until they've at least settled the issue of school finance. And their votes are needed to get a two-thirds super majority in both chambers to override a governor's veto.
But GOP leaders in both chambers appear to believe that they can exert more control over spending growth if lawmakers settle the revenue question first.
The Senate tax committee spent the day working on two different tax plans. One of those would only repeal the most controversial of the tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012, the so-called "LLC loophole" that completely exempts certain kinds of non-wage business income from state taxes.
All of the other major tax bills lawmakers have considered have packaged that together with other kinds of tax increases that will be less popular with voters, including across-the-board increases in individual income tax rates.
Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who chairs the Senate tax panel, said leaders in the Senate have requested that bill. It is believed that a stand-alone bill repealing the LLC exemption would be hard for anyone to vote against. But it also would only generate about $230 million a year in new taxes, and separating that issue would make it much more difficult to pass other, less popular tax measures.
That same committee also worked on cobbling together another, more comprehensive tax measure. But Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the committee, repeated the Democrats' insistence that it is still too early to vote on a tax measure.
"I strongly believe that we need to know what our school finance program is going to cost us before we do a tax plan," Holland said.
Meanwhile, Johnson said, there are other efforts taking place behind the scenes to find a consensus on tax policy.
"I think there are some other efforts that are going on, including some efforts that the governor had had in working with a plan with some of the leadership to see what pieces we can get through," he said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has said she intends to bring the Senate into session both Saturday and Sunday this week if there is no progress on a tax plan by then. House leaders have not said whether they plan to work through the weekend.
Kerry Gooch announced Tuesday night that he will soon step down as executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
Gooch first started working for the party four years ago at age 22. He became executive director in 2015 after what had been, for Democrats, a disappointing election cycle the year before. That was when the party narrowly lost the governor's race and lost five seats in the Kansas House.
He then helped steer the party through a much more successful campaign in 2016 when Democrats saw a net gain of 12 seats in the House and one seat in the Senate.
During a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Gooch said he told the party's executive committee that he would stay on board long enough for them to hire a replacement, a process he said might take about 60 days. He also said he has no immediate plans for what he will do next, but he indicated it's likely he will be seen on the campaign trail in 2018.
"Now is the time for the KDP to move into the next phase as we head towards the 2018 elections. I’m ready for my next adventure — maybe I’ll have time to join my county party or finally get good enough to beat my 93-year-old grandfather in a round of golf," Gooch said in a statement released by the party Tuesday night.
Gooch is the grandson of former state Sen. U.L. "Rip" Gooch, of Wichita.
Kansas lawmakers may have to wait at least several more days before they get a chance to debate and vote on a proposed new formula for funding public schools.
That's one of the Legislature's "must-do" tasks this year because the Kansas Supreme Court has said the block grant formula that has been funding schools for the last two years is unconstitutional and must be replaced by June 30 if schools are to remain open.
Just before lawmakers adjourned in early April for a three-week break, a House committee that has been working on a new formula settled on the outline of a plan that would add roughly $150 million in new base per-pupil funding over each of the next five years. It also would fully fund all-day kindergarten and make a number of other policy changes.
That means by the 2021-2022 school year, the state would be spending at least $750 million a year more than the state spends now, and the cost could go even higher, depending on enrollment growth and other factors.
During a meeting Tuesday, members of that committee got a refresher summary of all the things contained in that bill, and Chairman Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, laid out his schedule on how to proceed.
On Wednesday, he said, the group will hear from Taxation Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Assaria, about possible revenue sources to pay for the plan, and the possibility of packaging those tax provisions together with the spending and policy changes all into one bill.
Then on Thursday, the committee will hear from the Legislature's newly hired legal counsel, former Sen. Jeff King, who will offer his advice about whether the plan would meet the constitutional requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.
Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who serves on the committee, said that means it could take until Monday of next week before the bill is sent to the full House.
"It's not perfect. Not everything I wanted is in it. It doesn't include everything I think it should, but I'm overall pleased with the product," Karleskint said. "We've got a long way to go."
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said she was pleased with the bill as well, adding that the business and education communities in her Johnson County district expressed strong support for it during the recent break.
"Very, very, very loud support from the audiences that I was addressing, my constituents," Rooker said.
One piece of the bill that may prove controversial, however, is a provision that extends, but puts new limits on, a program that offers tax credits to corporations that contribute to scholarship funds to enable certain low-income students in troubled public schools to attend private schools.
That program was established two years ago when conservatives had solid majorities in both chambers. But Democrats and moderate Republicans made big gains in the 2016 elections, especially in the House, and many of them would prefer to repeal that program entirely.
But of the key Democrats on the House panel, Reps. Tom Sawyer and Henry Helgerson, both of Wichita, said they were comfortable with the compromise that had been reached. That compromise requires the private schools receiving the money to be state accredited and to meet certain minimum academic performance standards.
Just how long it takes to get to the full House could determine how long it will take to get through the rest of the session. Earlier in the day Tuesday, support in the Senate collapsed for a proposed income tax plan aimed at closing a projected budget shortfall next year.
Democrats and some moderate Republicans said they first want to see how much the school finance plan is going to cost before they vote on a tax bill, and some would prefer to vote on a single, comprehensive tax bill rather than having to pass multiple tax bills to address different parts of the budget. Republican leaders in the Senate, however, are saying they want to keep the school finance and budget-balancing tax issues separate.
Some lawmakers are concerned, though, that putting the school funding formula and a tax plan to pay for it all in one bill could raise constitutional issues. The Kansas Constitution generally prohibits the Legislature from passing bills that contain multiple subjects. But others point out that lawmakers did that in 1992 when they passed the last school finance plan, which established both a statewide per-pupil funding formula and a uniform statewide property tax to help pay for it.
The Kansas Senate could vote as early as Tuesday on a new, revised tax package that is changed only slightly from the one Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed earlier in the session.
House and Senate negotiators met late in the afternoon on their first day back in session following a three-week break and quickly agreed to send the modified plan to the full chambers.
Like the earlier plan, it would reverse course on many of the signature income tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012 and 2013 by reinstating a third, upper tax bracket and repealing the so-called LLC exemption that allows more than 330,000 business owners and farmers to pay no state taxes on their business income.
The major difference, though, is that the new individual tax rates would take effect July 1 of this year, instead of being retroactive to Jan. 1. Both Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning had cited that retroactive provision as reasons why they voted against the earlier bill, which came up three votes short of the two-thirds majority that was needed to override Brownback's veto.
Because of that change, the new plan would raise slightly less than the $1 billion over the next two years that the previous bill would have raised. But it remains to be seen whether it can reach the threshold of 27 votes in the Senate that it would need to overcome a virtually certain second veto by the governor.
Senate tax committee chairwoman Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said she does not plan to vote for the bill, but added, "They said they have 27 without me."
Kansas currently has just two income tax brackets. For married couples filing jointly, they are 2.7 percent on the first $30,000 of taxable income and 4.6 percent on any income over that. For single tax filers, the cutoff point is $15,000 a year.
Under the new plan, the lower rate would remain the same. But in tax year 2018 the upper rate would rise to 5.45 percent, and a new, higher bracket of 5.49 percent would be created for taxable income over $100,000 a year. For single tax filers, the cutoff points would be one-half of those for married couples.
For the current tax year, 2017, the increases would only be half as large because the new rates would not take effect until the second half of the year. That means employers would start withholding at the new, higher rates, on July 1, but each person's tax liability for 2017 would only go up by half as much as it would for a full year.
"It is our hope that this will address the retroactive concern," said Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Asaria, who chairs the House tax committee. He said the major objection about a retroactive tax increase was that it would be difficult for employers and accountants to adjust payroll withholding mid-way through a year for a tax change that affects the entire year.
There was also concern, however, that waiting until Jan. 1, 2018, to make the change would fail to raise enough money to balance the budget for the fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2017, and ends June 30, 2018.
"We were trying to figure out a way, how do we move forward and still potentially balance the 2018 budget," Johnson said.
But Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate tax panel, said while it may be enough to fix the state's current budget shortfall, it does not raise enough money to add any new funding for K-12 public schools, which the Kansas Supreme Court has said are currently receiving inadequate funding.
"My uncomfortability with this plan here is that it does not in any way address the additional dollars we're going to need to satisfy the courts," Holland said. "In essence, we're asking legislators really to take two bites at the apple if they want to look at income tax to satisfy not only the structural deficit we have in the current budget but also to use those additional income tax dollars to fund schools."
But there is no guaranty that lawmakers will turn to income taxes again to fun a new school finance plan. During a meeting earlier in the day of the House tax committee, members talked about a number of other tax options such as higher cigarette taxes or levying retail sales taxes on certain kinds of services.
The income tax bill was structured so that the Senate has to vote on it first. House leaders insisted on that because the Senate is where the veto override attempt failed on the last bill. The override attempt succeeded in the House.
That means it may end up being the first meaningful vote of the Senate's newest member, Republican Richard Hilderbrand of Baxter Springs.
Hilderbrand was sworn into office Monday morning after being selected the previous night by Republican Party officials in the 13th District southeast Kansas to fill the vacant seat created when Jacob LaTurner was appointed state treasurer.
Senate GOP leaders said they knew little about Hilderbrand, a 48-year-old insurance agent who served five years on the Cherokee County Commission. He said he had to step down from that seat in 2015 after getting married and moving out of his district.
LaTurner had been considered a solid ally of Gov. Brownback's who voted against the previous tax bill and the attempt to override Brownback's veto. But speaking to reporters after his swearing-in, Hilderbrand gave little indication about his leanings on the major issues of the session.
"I support the constituents of District 13," he said. "I'm going to vote the way I feel best represents them."
The Kansas Legislature's top tax analyst tried to explain something to lawmakers Thursday that many people are still trying to get their heads around: Why, at a time when there is modest but measurable inflation in the retail sector, is Kansas not seeing similar growth in retail sales tax collections?
That was one of the puzzles buried inside the new revenue estimates that were released last week. Despite the fact that the U.S. inflation rate is expected to hover around the 2 percent range for the next couple of years, retail sales tax collections in Kansas are forecast to grow less than 1 percent each year.
Chris Courtwright, the longtime principal economist in the Legislature's nonpartisan Research Department, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees Thursday that essentially flat growth in sales tax collections may be "the new normal," at least for the foreseeable future.
Courtwright said that's because the basket of goods and services that make up the Consumer Price Index — the basic measure of inflation — is made up of all kinds of things consumers buy, some of which are going up in price and some of which aren't.
The problem for Kansas, he said, is that the category of things that are rising in price are things Kansas doesn't tax: rent, health care and college tuition, to name just a few. The things Kansas does tax, such as food, clothing, computers and microwave ovens, are generally going down in price.
This wasn't the first time that the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group has noted the trend in its semi-annual revenue forecasts. That group, which includes university economists, the Research Department, the governor's budget office and the Department of Revenue, also noted it in their report in November when they slashed the current-year revenue forecast by $346 million, or 5.5 percent. One third of that reduction, or $115 million, was due to lowered expectations of sales tax collections.
The problem also is not unique to Kansas. People here buy from and sell to the same commercial economy as everyone else. But it does raise some interesting questions for lawmakers when they return next week for the final phase of the 2017 session, much of which will be focused on coming up with a tax plan to close a revenue shortfall estimated at more than $800 million over the next two years.
For decades since Kansas first enacted a sales tax in the 1930s, the state could count on natural growth in that revenue stream of 3-5 percent each year on average. That appears no longer to be the case. And adding to the stress is the fact that those items that are rising in cost — particularly health care and education — are the very things that state government buys a lot of.
One solution that frequently comes up when discussing sales taxes would be to expand the sales tax base to capture those items that are currently exempt, primarily services. But one of the biggest categories of "services" in Kansas is health care services, and one can only imagine the outrage from constituents that would erupt when they start seeing a sales tax charge tacked on to their doctor bills.
Another option on the table may sound counter-intuitive at first. That would be to lower the sales tax rate, particularly on food, which some people argue is so high now that it's actually driving consumers in border counties to shop in Missouri or Nebraska, where sales taxes are lower. But there is little concrete data to show how much of that is actually happening, or how much revenue, if any, Kansas could recapture by pegging its sales tax rate to those of neighboring states.
There is also little Kansas can do on its own to capture more online retail business with its sales tax. It would take an act of Congress to establish a uniform national policy on taxing online sales, and neither the Trump administration nor the Republican-controlled Congress is currently in a mood to pass anything that even smells like a tax increase. In fact, quite the opposite.
That means when lawmakers return next week, they will probably have to look elsewhere to find a fix for the state's current budget shortfall.
Saying there is at least one, and possibly more companies negotiating to buy the troubled St. Francis Health Center in Topeka, Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday there is "no reason" that hospital should close later this year.
"We now have a buyer — at least one, we think there may be more options come forward as well, so there really should be no reason that St. Francis closes," Brownback said. "We have a legitimate buyer. It's a known entity that is financially capable of doing this. That may not be the one that (its parent company SCL Health) picks, but we have one, so there really should be no reason for St. Francis to close."
He was referring to California-based Prime Healthcare Foundation, which announced over the weekend that it was interested in acquiring St. Francis, although no agreement has been reached. The company owns and operates 14 community-based nonprofit hospitals around the country.
St. Francis is a 378-bed hospital that employs roughly 1,600 people in Topeka. Its owners have been searching for a buyer since last summer, and last week they said regardless of whether they find one, they will not continue operating the hospital beyond this summer.
SCL Health said it would wait two weeks, until May 2, to line up a buyer before it would announce plans for a shutdown.
Closure of the hospital would not only have a big impact on the local Topeka economy and the regional health care market, but it would also have political implications in the debate at the Kansas Legislature over Medicaid expansion. SCL Health officials have cited the state's refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act as one of the factors contributing to the hospital's financial problems.
In March, Brownback vetoed a bill that would have expanded the Kansas Medicaid program, known as KanCare, to extend coverage to an estimated 155,000 additional people. An effort to override that veto narrowly failed in the House on April 3.
Brownback said Wednesday that he had met recently with officials from Prime Healthcare, the only company that has publicly expressed an interest in acquiring St. Francis. But he said other potential buyers have asked for more information about the hospital as they weigh whether to make a proposal.
"I talked with (SCL Health CEO) Mike Slubowski twice this week about this, about getting offers. They're the ones that have to sort through them," Brownback said. But at this point in time, we have a buyer. There are negotiations going on with them and others, so I don't know who they're going to pick, but there really should be no reason that St. Francis closes."
In the wake of a surprisingly close special election on Tuesday, state and national Democrats have to be asking themselves one question: Who lost the 4th District?
The more important question, though, ought to be what, if anything, does the race between Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes and first-time Democratic candidate James Thompson portend about the next round of congressional races in 2018?
Estes won the race, 53-46 percent, over Thompson, but heading into the special election, people in both parties assumed the margin would be much wider than that. Only six months earlier, former Rep. Mike Pompeo, whose appointment as CIA director triggered the special election, carried the district by a 31-point margin over Democrat Dan Giroux. Trump himself carried the district by a 27-point margin.
Contrary to what President Donald Trump tweeted out Wednesday morning, neither the state nor the national Democratic Party put a whole lot of money into the race between Estes and Thompson, at least until the final days of the race.
Only in the final days, when polling numbers and advance voting trends showed the race might be winnable, did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee start making phone calls into the district, while the liberal activist website the Daily Kos started rounding up phone bank volunteers and raising money online for Thompson.
Tyler Law of the DCCC said that group reached about 25,000 voters by phone on Monday and Tuesday. And Chris Reeves, a Kansas Democratic Party activist who occasionally blogs for the Daily Kos, said that organization raised a little more than $160,000 during the final push.
Republicans also appear to have been caught off guard by the closeness of the race, but they reacted more quickly. Starting Tuesday, April 4, according to reports on file with the Federal Election Commission, they poured in $160,000 worth of advertising into the Wichita media market, with more than half of that spent on negative advertising against Thompson.
By congressional race standards, that’s a fairly paltry sum and a reflection of the fact that Kansas is a pretty low-cost, low-risk state when it comes to campaign spending.
That advertising was followed by a series of robocalls to GOP voters over the weekend from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and a personal fly-in appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Kansas GOP presidential caucuses last year by a wide margin over Trump.
There were signs of intra-party strife early on when Thompson complained that the Kansas Democratic Party turned down his request for a $25,000 postcard mailing. Officials with the state party, however, said they simply didn’t have it, although they said they did provide plenty of staff and other logistical support.
Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez told the Washington Post that the national party had no plans to invest money in the race. “We can make progress in Kansas,” Perez was quoted as saying. “There are thousands of elections every year, though. Can we invest in all of them? That would require a major increase in funds.”
The lack of attention paid by the Democratic National Committee to states like Kansas has been a sore spot for many years. But frustration with what some Democrats see as a “bi-coastal” mentality of the national party reached a crescendo after the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote despite winning the popular vote by more than 3 million ballots.
Clinton won only five states outside the West Coast, the Mid-Atlantic Coast and New England.
Furthermore, of the 48 seats in the U.S. Senate that Democrats currently control, including the two independents who caucus with Democrats, only 10 of them are from states that Trump won in 2016. And of those 10, nine are up for re-election in 2018.
Back home in Kansas, it’s easy to make the argument that investing in a Democratic campaign is an act of futility. Republicans have run the table in every statewide and federal race here since 2010. For those who are counting, that's a streak of 32-0. But the results of Tuesday’s special election in the 4th District may indicate that it might be worth the DNC’s time to spend just a little bit of money here.
Thompson has already indicated he plans to make another run for that seat in 2018. In addition, though, at least two other congressional districts in Kansas are now seen as potentially in play.
In the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, including Lawrence, Rep. Lynn Jenkins has already announced her plans to retire, making that an open race next year. And Democrats see signs of hope in the Kansas City-centered 3rd District, which Clinton carried by a narrow margin in 2016 while incumbent GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder won with barely 51 percent of the vote.
Granted, the political landscape will look much different in 2018 than it did this week, when the campaign schedule was compressed into just a few weeks and preliminary estimates put voter turnout at just 27 percent. There will also be an open race for governor at the top of the ballot, which could drain a lot of local resources away from congressional races.
Still, in light of Tuesday's results, there is every reason to think that congressional races in Kansas will be more competitive in 2018 than they have been for the last four cycles.
With the Kansas Legislature out for a three-week break, now is a good time to catch people up on the status of issues that tend to get drowned out by the din surrounding bigger issues like school finance, taxes, Medicaid expansion and the state budget.
One of the issues that seems to generate a lot of interest whenever it comes up — and we'll leave it to others to speculate as to why — is legalization, in one form or another, of marijuana and related substances. As the regular part of the 2017 session came to a close Friday, three cannabis-related bills were still viable. Here's a brief summary of where they stand.
• Industrial Hemp: House Bill 2182, also known as the Kansas Agricultural Industry Growth Act, is probably the most viable among the bills this year because it has already cleared one chamber of the Legislature with a 103-18 vote in the House.
The bill would be a first step in establishing an industry in Kansas that grows and cultivates hemp as an agricultural commodity that could be processed into a variety of materials such as paper, fabrics and plastics. It would set up a pilot program in which the Kansas Department of Agriculture could issue licenses to individuals, companies or universities to cultivate and conduct research on industrial hemp. It could also issue licenses for distributors and processors.
It also defines "industrial hemp" as a variety of the plant cannabis sativa that contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana. That's a tiny fraction of the amount found in higher-grade illegal marijuana.
The bill has support from a number of agricultural groups, rural economic development groups, environmental groups and some conservatives in the Legislature. But law enforcement groups have opposed the bill, saying it goes further than what is allowed under federal law because it allows virtually anyone, not just universities or state departments of agriculture, to conduct research.
It is now in the hands of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing.
• Medicinal hemp oil: House Bill 2152 is largely the work of Lawrence Democratic Rep. John Wilson. It would authorize the production and use of certain hemp "preparations" containing no more than 3 percent THC to treat certain kinds of seizure disorders and other medical conditions.
People who suffer from those conditions would be able to obtain a card from their physician stating that they are eligible to receive hemp medications. Patients would then be able to obtain hemp-based treatments from preparation centers that would be licensed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
It was the subject of an emotional hearing on March 15 before the House Health and Human Services Committee in which the parents of severely disabled children afflicted with those conditions pleaded for passage of the bill. But, like the industrial hemp bill, it was opposed by law enforcement groups who argued, among other things, that medications to treat serious illnesses should be done through regulated pharmacies using doctors' prescriptions.
The committee has taken no action on the bill since that March 15 hearing. A similar bill, however, passed out of the House during the 2016 session but died in the Senate.
• Medical marijuana: Senate Bill 155 is this year's version of a bill that Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, has been pushing for several years. As it was originally introduced, it was called the "Cannabis Compassion and Care Act" and it would have legalized the use of full-strength marijuana for a variety of debilitating medical conditions.
During a committee meeting in March, however, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee stripped out the contents of the bill and inserted the contents of another bill allowing doctors to prescribe, and pharmacists to dispense, "non-intoxicating cannabinoid medicine."
The committee voted March 10 to send the amended bill to the full Senate, which has not yet taken action.
Democrats in the Kansas House are using a procedural move that could force a debate Tuesday on proposals to exempt public hospitals, mental health facilities and college campuses from having to allow people to carry concealed weapons in those places starting July 1.
House Democratic Leader Jim Ward invoked a procedure Monday that, if successful, would bring House Bill 2042 up for debate as the first item of business on Tuesday.
The bill itself has nothing to do with exceptions to the state's concealed-carry law. Rather, it would reinstate a "reciprocity" law in Kansas that says Kansas will recognize valid concealed-carry permits issued by other states, as long as those states recognize Kansas permits.
The law was repealed a few years ago when Kansas stopped requiring individuals to have permits to carry concealed firearms, although the state does still issue them to people who are qualified and request one. But Attorney General Derek Schmidt is asking to reinstate the law, primarily so Kansans who want to carry their weapons in other states can use their Kansas permits to do so.
The bill passed out of the Federal and State Affairs Committee on March 16. House GOP leaders, however, haven't brought that bill up for debate by the full House, in part because they know it is open to amendments, as long as those amendments deal with the same general subject of concealed-carry requirements.
Gun rights advocates hold a narrow majority on the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which so far has rejected bills that would exempt higher education campuses and public health care facilities from the concealed-carry requirement. But advocates of exempting those institutions believe they have a solid majority in support of those exemptions within the full House.
Under one of the rules of the House, any member may offer a motion, which Ward did on Monday, to advance a bill to the top of the debate calendar. The House must vote on that motion the following day, and if it receives at least 70 votes in the 125-seat chamber, that bill becomes the first item of business when the House begins debating bills that day.
In 2013, the Legislature passed a bill requiring virtually all public buildings in Kansas to allow people to carry concealed firearms unless the governing body that owns the building provides adequate security, such as metal detectors and armed security guards, to make sure nobody can bring weapons into those facilities.
The law applies to all city, county and state public buildings, but it does not apply to K-12 public schools. It does, however, include municipally owned facilities such as Lawrence Memorial Hospital and the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. It also applies to the University of Kansas hospital in Kansas City, Kan., which is operated by the KU Hospital Authority and is co-located in the same buildings as KU's medical school.
Cities, counties and higher education institutions were given four years to come into compliance with that law. That four-year grace period expires on June 30.
Both U.S. senators from Kansas and two of its three House members voted over the past week in favor of repealing the Federal Communications Commission’s new internet privacy rules.
Those regulations, adopted near the end of President Barack Obama’s administration, would have required internet service providers, or ISPs, to get their customers’ permission before they could collect private data such as browsing history and sell it to advertisers.
The telecommunications industry strongly opposed the rules, in part because they applied only to ISPs and not to particular websites such as Facebook and Google that also collect users’ browsing history to deliver targeted advertising. They also argued that the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, has traditionally been in charge of internet privacy rules. The Senate voted 50-48 on March 23 to disapprove those rules, which had not yet taken effect. Both Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran voted for the measure. The House followed up on Tuesday of this week, voting 231-189 to send the measure to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins of the 2nd District, which includes Lawrence, voted in favor of the resolution, as did 1st District Rep. Roger Marshall. Third District Rep. Kevin Yoder was the only member of the Kansas congressional delegation to vote no.
The 4th District seat in south-central Kansas is currently vacant due to Mike Pompeo’s appointment as CIA director. A special election to fill that seat will be held April 11. Yoder was also the only member of Congress from Kansas to post a public statement explaining his vote.
“In the 21st century, Americans deeply value their privacy when it comes to digital content,” he said in a statement posted on his congressional website. “We don’t want the government having access to our information without our consent, and the same goes for private business.”
When contacted by the Journal-World, Sen. Roberts’ office could not provide a direct statement from him regarding his vote. Roberts was said to be getting ready for an event Saturday at Kansas State University in Manhattan. But his spokeswoman said in an email message that the issue dates back to 2015, when the FCC issued an order taking jurisdiction over internet privacy regulation away from the FTC.
“Senator Roberts wishes that the FCC, under pressure from the Obama White House, hadn’t voted in 2015 to approve an order that removed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from its traditional role as privacy cop when it comes to Internet Service Providers,” his communications director Sarah Little said. “His vote last week for the resolution did not change current privacy protections of Americans’ online data. It prevented the implementation of rules that had not yet gone into effect and that the FCC itself had stayed earlier this month. Roberts was encouraged by the recent announcement from FCC Chairman and Kansan Ajit Pai and Acting Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Maureen K. Ohlhausen that they will work in concert to craft better rules that protect the privacy of consumers no matter what type of device they use or regardless of what sites they frequent.” Moran’s office issued an email statement late Friday, in response to a request, that questioned the Obama administration’s last-minute regulation.
“In the final days of his presidency, the Obama administration pushed through new privacy rules that would only apply to part of the internet, leading to consumer confusion and frustration,” Moran said in the statement. “By preventing the implementation of these midnight regulations, the FCC and the FTC now have an opportunity to work together on a unified approach that strengthens privacy protections across the board."
In response to a question from the Journal-World, Jenkins’ office issued an email statement saying she believed the FTC should remain in charge of internet privacy regulation. “While I agree with the goal, the best way to protect one’s privacy is by having one all-encompassing framework – not a system split between two agencies through a midnight regulation by a former administration,” the statement read. “That’s why I believe that jurisdiction over broadband providers’ privacy and data security should remain with the Federal Trade Commission, which has had jurisdiction over these issues since the inception of the internet and is the nation’s leading expert on these important issues.”
Jenkins went on to say that Pai, a Parsons, Kan., native and FCC commissioner who was elevated to chairman by President Trump, did not intend to implement the rules due to similar concerns.
Pai issued a statement following the House vote suggesting the rules were motivated by partisan politics in the first place.
“Last year, the Federal Communications Commission pushed through, on a party-line vote, privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies,” he said. “Appropriately, Congress has passed a resolution to reject this approach of picking winners and losers before it takes effect.”
Marshall’s office also issued an email statement saying the measure only ends what he described as a “turf war between two government bureaucracies.”
“Let me be clear: the passage of this (Congressional Review Act resolution) changed nothing, other than to prevent a rule which hadn’t yet gone into effect from targeting a single group of internet companies,” Marshall said in the statement. “The FTC will continue to regulate internet privacy, including internet service providers. This was about keeping a level playing field between internet service providers and online entities.”
The Kansas House advanced a nonbinding resolution Wednesday that declares pornography a "public health hazard."
House Resolution 6016 has the strong backing of two conservative Christian organizations, American Family Action of Kansas and Missouri, and Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. Lobbyists from both organizations testified in favor of the resolution in the Federal and State Affairs Committee earlier in March. An identical resolution is pending in the Kansas Senate.
Although it does not enact any new laws or regulations, it makes a sense-of-the-House statement that pornography is "a public health hazard that leads to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms."
The resolution also does not direct county health departments or any other public agency charged with addressing public health hazards to take any specific actions regarding pornography. It does, however, state that "we recognize the need for additional education, prevention, research and policy change at the community and societal levels, and we urge this chamber and other governing bodies to take appropriate steps to ensure progress is made."
"The data is increasingly undeniable and disturbing," Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita, said. "Pornography correlates with a wide range of negative health outcomes including violence against women, child abuse, divorce, prostitution, sex trafficking and addiction."
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, was the only member of the House who spoke against the resolution. He pointed to such works of art as Michelangelo's sculpture of David and passages in William Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" as examples of things that some people could construe as pornographic.
Weber, however, shrugged off those suggestions as "ludicrous."
Carmichael further explained his taking exception: "I hope that members of this House, my constituents and the citizens of this state understand that my vote 'no' today, and presumably on final action (Thursday) is not meant as encouragement of violent and graphic depictions, but rather it is in defense of freedom, liberty and the First Amendment, despite the fact that the price of freedom is high."
Hopes of getting more funding in future years to protect the state's endangered water resources were dealt a severe setback Tuesday when the House budget committee rejected a proposal to spend even the amount the state is already legally obligated to spend for water projects.
Increasing funding for water preservation projects was one of Gov. Sam Brownback's top priorities for this legislative session, and Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, was named to lead a special House committee that was charged with coming up with a funding plan.
Sloan's committee has been stalled, however, because other groups that pay fees that go into the state's Water Plan Fund — including municipal water utilities — have been unwilling to accept any plan calling for them to pay higher fees, at least until the state of Kansas starts paying its own share of the cost, something it has not done since 2008.
During a meeting Tuesday of the House Appropriations Committee, which is working on the next two-year budget bill for the state, Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, offered an amendment to add money to make the payments that the state is obligated by statute to make: $6 million from the state general fund and $2 million from the Economic Development Initiatives Fund, which comes from state Lottery proceeds.
The committee rejected that amendment on a voice vote. But even many of those who opposed it said they understood the importance of it.
"It is going to be a huge, huge crisis, and it is barreling down fast," said Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe. "It is absolutely imperative that at some point in time, this come to the top of our list. ... This will someday probably be one of the biggest and most important issues we have in this state. We are quickly heading to a disaster."
At the same time, however, Campbell, who also chairs a committee in charge of coming up with a new school funding formula, said he could not support funding the water plan this year in the midst of a significant budget crisis.
The State Water Plan program was established in the 1980s to pay for projects such as streambank stabilization and soil conservation measures that prevent reservoirs like Clinton Lake from filling up with silt. It also helps pay for other conservation measures intended to reduce depletion of underground aquifers.
One of the biggest projects the program has ever taken on is the recent dredging of John Redmond Reservoir near Burlington, a $20 million project that will remove 3 million cubic yards of sediment from the lake. The project was financed with state-issued bonds that were backed, in part, with future Water Plan revenue.
Most of the funding for the Water Plan comes from fees charged to various types of water users. Municipal water utilities, including the one in Lawrence, charge a fee to their users that appears on their monthly water bills. Industrial water customers also pay a fee, as do livestock producers. The state also charges fees that go into the fund for the purchase of farm fertilizers and pesticides. Those fees generate about $13 million a year.
The state currently does not, however, charge a fee for water pumped out of the ground for irrigation, which actually accounts for roughly 80 percent of all the water consumed in Kansas each year.
A blue ribbon task force that Brownback appointed to study funding options has recommended the state increase funding to about $56 million a year. That group also proposed earmarking a portion of the state's existing sales tax to pay for the increase, something that Republican leaders in the House have declined to even consider.
Others have suggested increasing existing fees and levying fees on groundwater pumped for irrigation. But during debates in Sloan's committee, lobbyists representing agriculture groups and municipal water utilities have said they will not accept any plan to increase the fees they already pay unless irrigators also pay into the fund. And none of them will accept any package of higher fees as long as the state continues to withhold the payments it is supposed to make.
Withholding payments into the Water Plan fund is nothing new for the Kansas Legislature. Since 1991, according to the Legislative Research Department, the state has shorted its payments into the fund by a total of more than $65 million. Most of that, nearly $54 million, has been withheld since 2010.
The Senate version of the next two-year budget also does not include funding for the State Water Plan. Had the House committee included the money, it could have been an issue the two chambers would negotiate in a conference committee.
Sloan said after the meeting that despite what happened in the Appropriations Committee, he still holds out hope that there will be additional funding for water projects.
"I continue to work with the Appropriations Committee and the House leadership to fund at least some high-priority programs and projects," he said. "Until we go home in May, there's still that hope we'll get something for water funding. Slim hope."
House and Senate budget negotiators failed to reach agreement Monday on a bill aimed at filling a $281 million funding shortfall in the current fiscal year's budget, something both chambers need before they can get to work on the next two-year "mega" budget bill.
The sole remaining issue separating the two chambers is funding going into the state pension system. And even though the so-called "rescission bill" is aimed at balancing this year's budget, it has provisions that would affect state spending for the next two years as well.
In particular, the Senate proposal calls for delaying part of a payment into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System this year but repaying that money over the next several years. But it also calls for repaying $115.5 million next year to make up for a payment that was delayed in 2016.
House budget committee chairman Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said that's a hard commitment to make because the next fiscal year is going to be difficult under any scenario. Although it's generally agreed that lawmakers intend to pass a major tax increase sometime this session, the House is still waiting on the Senate to come up with a plan that has enough votes to override a governor's veto.
Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed an earlier bill that would have raised about $1 billion in new income tax revenues over the next two years. The House voted to override that veto, but the override attempt fell three votes short in the Senate.
House passes industrial hemp bill
The Kansas House voted overwhelmingly Monday to pass a bill that would legalize the production of industrial hemp in Kansas. The 103-18 vote sends the bill to the Senate.
The bill establishes a pilot program that authorizes the Kansas Department of Agriculture to license commercial growers to produce industrial hemp, and for businesses to process the plant into various products. It would also authorize universities such as Kansas State University to conduct research into seed varieties, cultivation and commercialization of hemp products.
The bill defines industrial hemp as a form of cannabis with less than 0.3 percent content of THC, the intoxicating substance in marijuana.
State property values up nearly 6 percent in 2017
Property values in Kansas rose 5.9 percent in Kansas last year, the strongest year-over-year increase since the collapse of the real estate market that led to the Great Recession in 2009, the Kansas Department of Revenue said Monday.
That may be good news for the state, which relies in part on a statewide 20-mill property tax levy to fund public schools. The more money the state generates from that property tax, the less it has to add to the funding system from general fund revenues.
Revenue Department officials told the Senate tax committee Monday that the growth was largely due to a rebound in the residential real estate market. When the value of new construction is taken out of the total, the total value of existing property rose 5 percent.
The preliminary numbers only include residential, commercial and agricultural real estate, whose values are set by county appraisers. They do not yet include railroad property, public utilities or oil and gas wells, which are appraised by the state.
Revenue officials also cautioned that the final valuation numbers, which are due by June 1, will likely be smaller because counties are only now starting to hear appeals from property owners.
People who enjoy going out into the country and picking wild berries to make juices, jams and jellies may find it harder in the future to gather one particular berry, if a bill making its way through the Legislature becomes law.
On the other hand, ranchers in some parts of the state who may be in danger of seeing their pastures overrun with one particularly invasive kind of wild berry might rest a little easier.
The bill moving swiftly through the Legislature would put two species of wild blackberries — the everbearing blackberry and the Himalayan blackberry — in a category of noxious weeds so that individual counties could decide whether they need to be kept under control.
The bill was introduced at the request of the Kansas Livestock Association, and it passed out of the Senate last week by a vote of 40-0. It received little attention, though, because that vote occurred on the same day the Senate was debating a controversial rescission bill aimed at closing a $281 million budget shortfall for the rest of the current fiscal year.
Mike Beam, who lobbies for the KLA, said it was mainly a concern in the Flint Hills region in central Kansas, but he said it has been reported as a problem by farmers and ranchers as far north as Washington County, on the Nebraska state line.
The bill then went swiftly to the House, where the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing Monday, and could vote to advance it to the full House as early as Tuesday.
Jeff Vogel, who manages the plant control and weed protection program in the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said neither plant is native to Kansas and only one, the everbearing blackberry, has even been identified here, primarily in the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills. The Himalayan blackberry, however, has been identified in eight Missouri counties.
Despite their names, both are actually native to Europe and were most likely brought here, like many other species, by people who failed to appreciate the impact that the introduction of non-native species into an ecosystem can have.
Kansas has had experience with other invasive plants brought here from other parts of the world. The most recent to be added to the statewide list was "sericea lespedeza," which was brought here from Asia and was originally used to control erosion. It was sometimes also used by state highway departments as ground cover along public highways.
Kudzu is another plant brought to the western hemisphere from Asia that is on the Kansas list of noxious weeds. Seen more in the southern U.S., it is so invasive it has been nicknamed "the vine that ate the South."
Wild blackberries, however, do have their fans, and they've even been described in a New York Times food blog as "deliciously invasive."
Rep. Larry Hibbard, a rancher from Toronto, Kan., and a Republican member of the Agriculture Committee, said he has had problems with the plant and hasn't yet found anything that can control it. "The only thing good I can say about it is its taste," he said. "They are good."
According to Vogel, birds and other wildlife also find them tasty, which is one way they can spread.
Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence, said that's what happens on his fruit farm in southeast Kansas. But he said he's leery about declaring it a noxious weed because he has two acres of commercial blackberries, and he doesn't want his county's noxious weed officers to start spraying for it along the roads and fences near his farm.
"That's where they always go, because a bird sits on the fence and the bird does what they do best and spread the seed, and so they're right under the barbed wire fence," Blex said.
There are some, however, who would prefer that the Legislature not be in the business of designating which plants should be designated noxious weeds. House Bill 2246, which is also pending in the Agriculture Committee, would take the entire list of noxious weeds out of state statutes and put the Kansas Department of Agriculture in charge of maintaining the list through regulation.
Kansas lawmakers made almost no progress last week toward balancing the state's current budget or coming up with a plan to fund the next one, but that could change this week when one Senate committee takes up Gov. Sam Brownback's "rescission" bill, and another makes a stab at a tax bill to raise just more than $1 billion over two years.
Meanwhile in the House, which has spent the last few weeks waiting on the Senate to come up with a solid position on budget and taxes, members will focus their attention on a host of other issues that include raising water fees, legalizing industrial hemp and the first abortion bill of the session.
The Senate has been mired in stalemate since early in the session over how to close what once was a projected $350 million funding shortfall for the current year's budget. That shortfall has been whittled down to about $281 million after monthly tax revenues came in a little higher than expected in recent months.
The House passed its version of a rescission bill on Feb. 17 by a margin of 87-36. It largely reflects the governor's plan in that it makes no major cuts in spending, but it does call for delaying payments to schools and the state pension system. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, along with other GOP leaders, however, have been holding back and insisting on a bill that makes actual cuts — something they've had difficulty getting others to accept, especially if those cuts include K-12 education.
Monday morning, the Senate Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on the House bill.
Then on Tuesday, the Senate tax committee will hear testimony on another tax bill that is similar in many ways to the bill that Brownback vetoed last month; the Senate narrowly failed to override his veto. It would repeal the so-called LLC exemption, one of Brownback's signature pieces of legislation from 2012, and it would reinstate a third, upper tax bracket while raising rates on many individuals.
Budget officials estimate it would generate $550.5 million in new revenue in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and $440.5 million the year after that. That's not enough to cover the projected shortfalls over the next two years, and it certainly would not provide any additional money for a school finance increase, which the Kansas Supreme Court ordered March 2.
Like the bill that Brownback vetoed last month, those tax changes would be retroactive to Jan. 1, something that Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, have strongly objected to. And it was their opposition, in large part, that prevented the Senate from mustering the 27 votes needed to override the veto.
Later in the day Monday, the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee will vote on whether to advance a bill that would legalize the production of industrial hemp in Kansas. That's something that has been gaining popularity in some circles of the agriculture industry, especially in water-shortage areas of western Kansas, because hemp requires considerably less water than crops such as corn and soybeans.
That will be followed by another hearing Wednesday in the House Health and Human Services Committee on a bill that would legalize the use of hemp byproducts to treat certain medical disorders. It's essentially the same bill that Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, sponsored last year, which passed the Kansas House but died in the Senate.
Before that happens, the same health committee will conduct a hearing Tuesday on the first abortion bill of the session.
House Bill 2319 would amend the state's Women's Right to Know Act by specifying even more information that abortion providers must disclose to patients before they can perform the procedure. That includes such things as the year the physician got his or her medical degree; how long they've been employed at the facility where the abortion is being performed; whether they've ever been disciplined by the Board of Healing Arts and, if so, links to the webpages where patients can look up records of those disciplinary actions.
The bill even specifies the font and type size that the information must be printed in — Times New Roman, 12-point type.
That hearing comes two days before the Kansas Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the last major abortion bill passed by the Legislature, which bans a commonly used procedure known as "dilation and evacuation," or D & E, but which is referred to in the law as "dismemberment abortion."
The question in that case is one that has never been presented to the Supreme Court before: whether the Kansas Constitution guarantees the same right to privacy as the U.S. Constitution, and thus provides the same right to abortion that was found in the landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade.
A few other issues coming up this week:
• A hearing Monday in the House Taxation Committee on H.B. 2387, providing a sales tax for materials purchased to repair certain property destroyed by wildfires this year.
• Hearings Tuesday in the House Water and Environment Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence. One bill would raise certain fees paid by water customers, farmers and ranchers that go into the state water fund. The other would impose more oversight by the Kansas Corporation Commission over oil and gas operators who hold mineral leases giving them the right to drill on other people's property.
• A hearing Wednesday in the Senate Commerce Committee on a bill directing the Kansas Department of Labor to develop a state plan for writing and enforcing the state's own workplace safety rules, thus allowing the state to opt out of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
• And a hearing Thursday in the House Taxation Committee on a bill amending the property tax lid that lawmakers imposed on local governments in 2015, and then modified last year.