Entries from blogs tagged with “politics”

Kansas Speaker’s office announces staff changes

Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick announced Thursday that his former chief of staff, Christie Kriegshauser, is returning to that post after a stint as a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber.

Kriegshauser will replace Wade Hapgood, who announced he is taking a new job as vice-president of state government affairs for UnitedHealth Group Inc., one of the three companies that contracts to manage the Kansas Medicaid system known as KanCare.

Kriegshauser began working for Merrick in 2007 when he was House Majority Leader. She later worked as chief of staff to former House Speaker Mike O'Neal, who is now CEO of the Kansas Chamber. She remained in the speaker's office when Merrick was elected to that post in 2013, but moved to the Chamber to work again with O'Neal after the 2013 legislative session.

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Stegall to recuse himself from ouster appeal

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall will recuse himself from a case to be heard Monday involving the ouster of a Prairie Village city councilman.

The court will hear the appeal Monday in the case of David Scott Morrison, who was ousted in October 2013 after a Johnson County judge found he had exercised "breathtakingly bad judgment" in allowing a homeless person to sleep in City Hall.

The Kansas Court of Appeals last year overturned Morrison's conviction and he was later reinstated in his seat. The appellate panel said the facts of the case did not, as a matter of law, meet the criteria under Kansas law for a judicial ouster.

Stegall was one of the three appellate court judges who heard that case. That decision was rendered just a few weeks before he was sworn in to a seat on the Supreme Court. Shawnee County Chief Judge Evelyn Z. Wilson will hear the case in his place.

An ouster is a formal legal proceeding in which a public official can be removed from office for willful misconduct in office, willful neglect to perform a legal duty, mental impairment, or criminal acts involving "moral turpitude."

The questions before the Supreme Court involve the appellate panel's definition of misconduct or neglect, whether Prairie Village's ethics code can result in an ouster, and whether the appellate court disregarded the standard of review in ouster cases.

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Kansas legislative wrap-up session starts off slow

Kansas lawmakers returned to Topeka Wednesday to begin wrapping up the 2015 session, but a casual observer might have a hard time noticing, given the lack of any visible action taking place.

The Senate met briefly in the morning and approved a handful of honorary resolutions, including one congratulating the Baldwin High School wrestling team for winning the 4A state title this year. The House is expected to have a similarly brief session in the afternoon.

The big issue hanging over the dome is the estimated $422 million budget gap the state is facing. Before lawmakers adjourned for their spring break, a conference committee had tentatively agreed to a $6.4 billion spending package for the upcoming fiscal year. But neither chamber has yet voted on that plan.

Now the question is what combination of spending cuts and tax increases they can agree to that will balance the budget and leave the state with a positive balance in its bank account at the end of the year.

But the budget conference committee currently has no meetings scheduled for the rest of this week. The Senate's tax committee is expected to meet Thursday, but only to consider a few minor bills. The House's tax committee has not yet scheduled a meeting.

Much of the negotiation appears to be going on behind closed doors as various legislators try to put together a tax package. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed raising alcohol and tobacco taxes, but most GOP legislators and virtually all Democrats oppose that idea.

Different groups of legislators are talking about different combinations of tax hikes — sales taxes, excise taxes and even scaling back some of the massive income tax cuts enacted a few years ago. But it is difficult to tell what combination it will take to garner the votes necessary to pass.

At this stage of the session, lawmakers often refer to the "magic numbers" of 63, 21 and one. For any package to become law, it takes 63 votes in the House, 21 votes in the Senate and the signature of one governor.

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Court denies Shawnee Mission’s motion to intervene in school finance case

A three-judge district court panel in Topeka on Monday denied a request by the Shawnee Mission school district to intervene in the ongoing school finance lawsuit.

But it continued to give the district limited permission to intervene in one aspect of the case that is still before the court, the question of whether certain kinds of funding are being distributed equitably among the state's 286 school districts.

The case, which was filed in 2010 and has already been reviewed once by the Kansas Supreme Court, challenges both the adequacy and equity of state funding for public education as a violation of the Kansas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to make "suitable provision for the finance" of public schools.

Shawnee Mission, a large suburban district in Johnson County with a relatively low poverty rate, was not one of the original plaintiffs in the case. The four main plaintiff districts are Kansas City, Wichita, Dodge City and Hutchinson, all of which have relatively high poverty rates and large numbers of students from non-English speaking households.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the equity portion of the suit and ordered the Legislature to increase the so-called "equalization" funding for districts' capital outlay and local option budgets. But it sent the larger question of overall adequacy of school funding back to the three-judge panel to be judged using a different standard.

Since then, though, several things have happened. The 2014 Legislature did increase equalization funding, and the panel initially said that was enough to satisfy the Supreme Court order. But the "fix" ended up costing the state more than anticipated, and when the state ran into more revenue problems in the fall, Gov. Sam Brownback ordered allotment cuts in the base funding for public schools.

Those allotment cuts had a ripple effect that also disrupted the equalization formulas, prompting the plaintiffs to file a motion in January to reopen the equity portion of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs asked, among other things, for an order to suspend operation of the entire local option budget law until the equity problems are fixed. A hearing on that motion, where Shawnee Mission has limited permission to intervene, is set for May 7.

In its motion to intervene, Shawnee Mission argued that it receives less money per-pupil than any of the plaintiff districts, and that its interests were not being adequately represented by either the plaintiffs or the Attorney General's office, which is representing the state.

But in its order Monday, the three-judge panel said there was nothing Shawnee Mission could add to the case that it couldn't add with a simple "friend of the court" brief.

"It is far past time in this case, and this Court presents no forum at this point, to adjudicate anew the inequitable features, subject of remedy, affirmed to exist in Gannon," the panel wrote.

More recently, however, Kansas lawmakers have passed, and Gov. Brownback has signed into law, a bill that completely repeals the entire school finance formula and replaces it for the next two years with a system of block grants.

Plaintiffs in the case are now asking the district court to declare that law unconstitutional. The panel so far has not set out a schedule for ruling on that motion, but an initial hearing could also take place at the May 7 hearing.

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Block grant bill becomes law; all eyes now on court

Senate Bill 7, the controversial legislation that repeals the old school finance formula and replaces it for two years with a system of block grants to school districts, officially became law Thursday when it was published in the Kansas Register.

For the time being, at least, school districts will immediately start to be funded under a different formula. Some, including the Lawrence school district, will start receiving less money than they had expected when they adopted their budgets last August. But it remains to be seen how long state courts will allow that to continue.

Soon after the bill passed both chambers, plaintiffs in the long-running school finance lawsuit filed a motion with the district court panel hearing the case, asking for a temporary order to block it from being implemented. They also asked the court to hear evidence at the next scheduled hearing May 7 to decide whether the law should be permanently enjoined.

The court has not yet acted on that motion. John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email Thursday that he is waiting just like everyone else to hear something from the court.

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Budget deal may have to wait as lawmakers prepare to go home

Kansas lawmakers are preparing to wind up the regular session today and are likely to leave without voting on the budget deal that House and Senate negotiators struck Wednesday.

There are several procedural reasons for that, but it boils down to the fact that the two Democrats on the negotiating teams have refused to sign off on the report. That means the House has to take another procedural step known as a motion to "agree to disagree," and Republican leaders aren't sure how a vote on that would turn out.

Democrats say they won't sign off on the budget deal because they think it's unsustainable. It relies on sweeping millions of dollars out of the state highway fund to pay for general fund expenses. And it's predicated on the assumption that lawmakers will pass a number of tax measures the governor has asked for, even though there is substantial doubt that the conservative-dominated Legislature will do any such thing.

Some Democrats also objected to the targeted cuts the Senate had proposed to Kansas University and Kansas State University, along with the reallocation of student financial aid money to students at private institutions. But the conference committee restored the KU and K-State money the Senate had cut and agreed to a less drastic reallocation of financial aid in favor of private school students.

The budget deal was worked out Wednesday by a conference committee made up of the chairman, vice chairman and ranking Democrat from the House and Senate budget-writing committees.

Rules of the Legislature say a conference committee report has to be signed by all six members of the panel. And in most cases, the minority party members will sign the report, even if they don't intend to vote for it. Withholding signatures is seen as a statement of strong protest.

When that happens, the full House and full Senate have to approve an "agree-to-disagree" motion, which sends the report back to the conference committee so it can come out with only four signatures.

The Senate ran its motion Wednesday, but the House did not. And there is concern in the House that enough conservatives don't like the bill that they won't vote for the motion because they, too, don't like the idea that it requires tax increases to be passed later.

If the House adjourns before voting on the measure, the entire budget issue will have to wait until April 29, when lawmakers return for the wrap-up session. By then, they will have new, updated revenue estimates for the next fiscal year showing more closely just how much of a gap there is between desired spending and expected revenue.

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Higher education at focus of budget negotiations

Higher education funding seems to be one of the key sticking points in ongoing budget talks between the Kansas House and Senate, and it's not yet clear whether the two chambers will reach an agreement before adjourning Thursday or Friday for the Legislature's annual spring break.

So far, the Senate is the only chamber that has passed a budget bill. It includes, among other things, a $9.4 million cut in general operating funds for Kansas University over the next two years, and a $2.1 million cut to Kansas State University in the upcoming fiscal year.

Also, the Senate included a proviso that says out of the $15.7 million available for need-based student financial aid, 75 percent will be reserved for students attending private, independent colleges and universities.

House negotiators so far are not going along with the cuts to KU and K-State. But Wednesday morning they offered a compromise on financial aid, suggesting that 60 percent be reserved for students at private schools.

The House is negotiating based on the bill reported out of its Appropriations Committee, but Republican leaders have not put that bill on the floor of the House for full debate and a vote.

Republican leaders in the House have admitted that they may not be able to muster the 63 votes needed for passage. But Democrats have suggested that GOP leaders don't want a floor debate where amendments could be offered out of fear that an amendment to authorize expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act might pass.

The chambers are able to meet in conference committee anyway because the Senate put the contents of its budget bill into a House bill, which technically makes it a change to the original House bill.

If negotiators for the two chambers are able to agree on a package, it will go back to the full chambers for a straight up-or-down vote, with no opportunity for further amendments.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn Thursday or Friday for about three and a half weeks. During that time, budget officials will release new consensus revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. Then the Legislature will return April 29 for a final wrap-up session to pass what is known as the "omnibus" budget bill, which must be balanced with those new revenue figures.

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Strange debate leads to passage of exotic animals bill

Unless you were one of the people listening to the Legislature online Thursday night, you probably have no idea how many members of the Kansas Senate have, at some point in their life, been kicked or beaten on various parts of their bodies by barnyard animals, or been viciously scratched by flying cats.

Furthermore, unless you were listening in, you might be asking yourself why on earth anyone on Earth would ever need, or even want, to know such information. So it was probably just as well that the Senate waited until around 9 p.m. — when everyone else, including the Journal-World's copy desk, was waiting for their final votes on bills dealing with local elections and teachers contracts — to take up debate on S.B. 97, a bill "relating to contact with dangerous regulated animals."

Ostensibly, the bill would amend laws put in place in 2006 after a Kansas high school student was killed by a tiger while posing for her senior pictures. That law basically prohibits anyone except USDA-licensed facilities from owning or possessing wild, exotic and dangerous animals. It also prohibits them from letting the general public handle such animals.

S.B. 97 would remove cheetahs and clouded leopards from the dangerous animal list. It came at the request of Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, a privately owned zoo whose owners want to put on educational programs in which school children could handle baby cheetahs and leopards. The bill would allow "full contact" with animals weighing less than 25 pounds, and more restricted contact with animals weighing 25-40 pounds.

Here, it's probably important to point out that Statehouse reporters spend a lot of time cooped up in the Statehouse where we don't always see what's happening on the cable news networks. So we didn't immediately get the joke when one of our former colleagues tweeted, "But can we chase llamas?"

Needless to say, there were many in the Senate who saw this as a thoroughly bad idea, including Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, whose constituents include the mother of the high school girl killed in 2006.

But it soon became a vehicle for every member of the Senate to tell his or her own personal story about rough dealings with animals, including Republican Steve Abrams, a veterinarian from Arkansas City, who told of having live cats hurled at him. Details of that story probably aren't necessary, but suffice it to say, even tiny kittens have sharp claws.

Some of us waited to see if Abrams would offer an amendment to require licenses for people to carry concealed cats. Instead, he offered an amendment to require anyone wanting to handle such animals to sign a statement saying they understand the inherent risk, although he insisted such a statement would not constitute a legal waiver. It passed on a voice vote. And along the way, he told more mortifying stories of being kicked, bucked and prodded by much larger and stronger livestock.

That quickly set off a chain reaction in which many in the chamber had to tell their own personal traumas with animals, most of which seemed wholly unrelated to the legislation at hand. And there seemed to be little relation between the seriousness of their encounters with their support or opposition to the bill. And to answer your question, no, we couldn't tell if their support or opposition correlated to their ability to identify the color of #TheDress.

Essentially, the Senate was divided between two camps: those who think it's less than rational to pass laws permitting children to freely handle wild cheetahs and leopards, regardless of the cats' size; and those who think all life is inherently dangerous and, thus, it's futile for government to try to shield them.

After an hour and 22 minutes of debate, the bill passed, 23-17. It now goes to the House.

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Medicaid expansion gains new life in Kansas House

House Speaker Ray Merrick reversed course Thursday and finally agreed to allow committee hearings on the subject of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Only days earlier, Merrick reportedly had told Reps. Tom Sloan of Lawrence and Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills, both moderate Republicans, that he would not allow such hearings. Sloan chairs the Vision 2020 committee that advanced a Medicaid expansion bill earlier in the session. Bollier, a retired physician, also serves on that committee.

But Merrick was forced to change his mind Thursday when Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, offered an expansion proposal as an amendment onto a minor bill that would authorize the Kansas Medicaid program to pay reimbursements for donated breast milk as a medical treatment for infants.

Because Ward's amendment also dealt with Medicaid, it was considered relevant to the underlying bill, and that could have forced a vote on an issue that GOP leaders weren't fully prepared for. But Ward agreed to withdraw his amendment in exchange for a personal assurance by the speaker that Medicaid expansion would get a hearing.

One of the factors that helped swing the decision, according to Sloan and Bollier, was fresh memory of the previous day's vote on a bill dealing with teacher contract negotiations. Conservatives had brought up a bill that would have taken away the exclusive bargaining rights of teachers unions and given every teacher authority to negotiate contracts individually.

But moderates offered up a substitute bill reflecting a negotiated compromise between the state's largest teachers union and associations representing school boards, superintendents and administrators. The amendment passed on Wednesday, 67-52, and the final bill was approved and sent to the Senate Thursday with 109 yes votes.

"It's the first vote where you could ascertain the ideological bent of the body," Sloan said, referring to the teacher negotiations bill. "That doesn't mean that there are 67 firm votes on everything, but it was a wake-up call."

Bollier said the impact of that vote may extend even further.

"To me it was a definite sign that constitutional changes are going to be incredibly difficult, if at all possible," she said.

Bollier was referring to proposed constitutional amendments that did not reach the floor of the House this week that would change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers, followed by a simple majority of voters in a public election.

Another indicator that Medicaid expansion may still have hope in the House came when Rep. Scott Schwab, a conservative Republican from Olathe, stood up to speak on Ward's Medicaid amendment. Schwab said he opposed the amendment, not because he opposed expanding Medicaid, but because he didn't like the method that Ward was calling for.

"I'm not one of the people who are absolutely opposed to expanding Medicaid," Schwab said. "As a matter of fact, I would have rather expanded Medicaid as opposed to doing the ACA altogether. ... If we just said, 'How many people would like to expand Medicaid and help those who need increased access to care but are lacking the resources to get typical day-to-day insurance,' a lot of us would say yes, we want those folks to get access to care. But it's hard to get 63 people (the minimum majority vote in the House) to agree on how to do that."

Ward's amendment would have repealed a law passed last year that requires legislative approval to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and prohibits the governor from acting on his own. The amendment would have authorized Gov. Sam Brownback to enter negotiations with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on a plan for how to implement Medicaid expansion in Kansas.

Sloan pointed out, though, that Ward's proposal did not provide any funding for an expansion. Under federal law, the state would eventually be required to pay 10 percent of the cost of covering those who would become eligible under the expansion.

The bill that the Vision 2020 committee endorsed would levy a fee on health care providers that receive Medicaid reimbursements to cover the state's 10 percent share. In exchange, those providers would receive the remaining 90 percent of funding that would come from the federal government.

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Brownback names Federalist Society lawyer as new policy chief

Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday named Brandon Smith, a lawyer from the conservative Federalist Society of Law and Public Policy Studies, to be his new policy director.

Smith has worked for the Federalist Society since 2011, according to a press release from the governor's office. Before that, he was a legislative intern for former Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who was chairman of the Kansas House Judiciary Committee.

“Brandon brings strong experience at the state and federal level that will serve Kansans well. I am pleased to welcome him to the team,” Brownback said in a statement released Wednesday.

Smith said: “Governor Brownback has a strong vision for the future of Kansas and I am grateful to have this opportunity to serve my fellow Kansans. I am excited to return to my home state and help make it the best place in America to raise a family and grow a business.”

The Federalist Society describes itself as, "a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order." Its membership has included a number of U.S. Supreme Court justices who now make up the conservative block on the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

A statement on the organization's website says:

Law schools and the legal profession are currently strongly dominated by a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society. While some members of the academic community have dissented from these views, by and large they are taught simultaneously with (and indeed as if they were) the law.

In May 2014, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst who writes for the New Yorker, reported on one of the group's annual conferences, which was focused on building a case for the impeachment of President Barack Obama. Toobin reported that the discussions focused on Obama's use of recess appointments, his administration's refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and his failure to deport immigrants who were minors when they were brought to the United States.

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State Rep. Peck takes on critics in debate over university professor columns

State Rep. Virgil Peck testified Wednesday in favor of House Bill 2234, which would prevent university professors from using their official titles in newspaper opinion columns. But he steadfastly denied that he was the one who requested the bill, and he had a few choice words for anyone who says otherwise.

"I want it to be known publicly, for any fruitcake that may want to write something about me, I did not author the bill. I did not ask for the bill to be written," Peck said. "Merely as a courtesy to the chairman of the Local Government Committee (Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center), I introduced it as a committee bill."

The bill would prohibit any employee of a public higher education institution from using his or her official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column. The policy would apply only when those opinion columns concern "a person who currently holds any elected public office in this state, a person who is a candidate for any elected public office in this state or any matter pending before any legislative or public body in this state."

Although no one who testified in favor of the bill would say specifically what prompted it, many have suggested it is a response to columns written by a group of university professors, mainly in political science, under the heading "Insight Kansas."

That group includes Kansas University professor Burdett Loomis; Emporia State University professor Michael Smith; Fort Hays State University professor Chapman Rackaway; and Wichita State University professor Ed Flentje, among others.

During the last election cycle, several of those columns were highly critical of policies enacted by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature.

Both Peck and Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, the only other person to speak in favor of the bill, said university employees should be free to speak their minds as individuals. But when expressing political opinions, they said university employees should not be allowed to use their university affiliation.

There is no mention in the bill about how the state would prevent newspapers from printing those official titles anyway, if they choose to do so.

Both men were asked several times why higher education employees were singled out in the bill, and not any other state employee. They responded by saying they had not seen examples or heard complaints about employees in other agencies engaging in that activity.

But Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, brought up an example, pointing out a column that had been written during the campaign by Flentje of Wichita State, "making a statement that he thought the governor's policies were flawed."

"It was responded to by the state budget director (Shawn Sullivan) who used his title to say the governor's policies, these were incorrect, this was not part of the governor's policy," Trimmer said. "Under this bill, that professor of economics could not say he was a professor of economics at the Hugo Wall Institute of Public Policy at Wichita State University, but the governor's economic budget director could use his title."

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, testified against the bill, calling it a "slippery slope" that could eventually lead to silencing school superintendents and teachers from writing columns or letters to the editor criticizing funding cuts or other state education policies.

The committee only heard testimony on the bill Wednesday. There was no announcement about when the panel might vote on whether to send it to the full House for consideration.

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Still no word on school block grant bill

A bill that would convert funding for the state's 286 school districts into a system of block grants still has not been introduced in the Senate, and the bill's author is giving no indication about when it might come.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, had said earlier that he hoped to have the bill introduced by the end of last week. The committee voted early last week to have a bill introduced — a formality that means when it is introduced, the Ways and Means Committee will be listed as the sponsor — but it's believed Masterson is still working on the exact wording of the bill.

And he is apparently keeping details of the plan a closely guarded secret. Normally, on any bill dealing with school finance, the Department of Education would be called upon for technical assistance and to produce spreadsheets showing what the fiscal impact would be on each school district. But agency officials said they have not been contacted about Masterson's block grant bill.

Gov. Sam Brownback called for repealing the school finance formula in his State of the State address, arguing that it's too complicated for anyone to understand. He proposed funding schools with block grants for the next two years while lawmakers work on developing another formula.

Separately, Sen. Steve Abrams has said he is developing a new funding formula that he plans to introduce soon. Abrams is an Arkansas City Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. But, like the block grant bill, Abrams' bill still has not been formally introduced and the details of that plan are also being kept quiet.

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Brownback tells bankers he’s staying the course

Despite the state's looming budget crisis, Gov. Sam Brownback gave an upbeat speech to the Kansas Bankers Association, saying the state is poised for economic growth, and vowing to continue on his course to eliminate state income taxes.

Speaking for about 20 minutes in a second-floor hallway at the Capitol, Brownback briefly noted that January revenues came in far below expectations, but focused only on the lag in sales tax collections, which he said was the result of a lackluster holiday shopping season that was felt nationwide.

But the $47.2 million revenue shortfall in January only added to an already dire budget situation. In November, state budget officials projected revenues would be $279 million short of what's needed to fund this year's budget. In response, Brownback ordered about $60 million in direct spending cuts in December and is now asking lawmakers to approve additional measures to close the remaining gap.

According to many analysts, the biggest contributor to the revenue shortfalls has been the sweeping income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013. Supporters of those measures said they would spur rapid economic growth. And in his remarks to the bankers association, Brownback said he still believes in that theory.

"Because the pro-growth position in the United States is to be a right-to-work state with no income taxes," Brownback said.

He told the bankers that he "cannot find a single study" to support what has often been called a "three-legged stool" of taxation in Kansas, a balance between sales, property and income taxes. "But I can find a lot of studies that point to, if you get that income tax rate down to zero, these are, long term, the states that grow the fastest."

The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, however, does not show a consistent pattern of above-average growth — as measured by their gross state products — in the seven states that have no income tax.

In 2013, when the U.S. economy grew at a sluggish rate of 1.8 percent, two of the seven no-income-tax states had even slower growth: Nevada at 1 percent and Alaska at -2.5 percent. Two other states that do not tax wages, but do tax interest and dividend income, also had below average growth: New Hampshire at 0.9 percent and Tennessee at 0.8 percent.

Most of the other no-income-tax states also had sluggish growth, although they were slightly above the national average: Florida at 2.2 percent and Washington at 2.7 percent. South Dakota and Texas saw growth rates in the 3-4 percent range.

Only Wyoming — whose entire population is roughly equal to that of Johnson County — stood out with a 7.6 percent growth rate, no doubt fueled by the new boom in domestic oil and gas production.

According to the website bankrate.com, which has information about the no-income-tax states, most of the states on the list have significantly higher state sales taxes than Kansas, or they have other significant sources of revenue such as the gaming industry in Nevada, or the petroleum industry, which funds nearly all of Alaska's state operations.

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Kansas House won’t open private emails used for public purpose

The Kansas House rejected an amendment Monday that would have opened up the private emails of public officials if those emails are used to conduct public business.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, offered that amendment to a bill dealing with the Kansas Open Records Act. He said it was a response to recent news reports that said Gov. Sam Brownback's budget director, Shawn Sullivan, had used his personal email account to communicate with lobbyists about the governor's budget before releasing it to the Legislature and the public.

"An informed electorate is the primary driving (force) of a representative democracy," Ward said. "In order to be informed, they have to know the process by which we make decisions."

The amendment would have made such private emails subject to the Kansas Open Records Act if they had a "substantial nexus" to the making of public policy.

But Republicans argued that the language was too broad. Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said the word "substantial" would eventually be interpreted by the courts, and it could lead to many more kinds of private emails becoming subject to public disclosure laws.

The amendment failed on a vote of 30-86.

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Education groups reach agreement on collective bargaining changes

Four groups representing school boards, administrators, superintendents and teachers reached agreement this week on changes they could all accept to a state law governing collective bargaining rights for teachers.

That agreement could make it more difficult for lawmakers to impose even more restrictions, as some conservatives have suggested.

The Professional Negotiations Act currently spells out a long list of items that must be open to negotiation when school districts negotiate master contracts with local teachers unions. School boards and administrators have long sought to shorten that list. And some conservative groups have suggested limiting collective bargaining only to wages and benefits.

The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Task Force, established by the Legislature last year, ultimately recommended in January that lawmakers let the various education groups come to an agreement themselves before the Legislature considers making changes to the law. But a minority of that panel issued a separate report saying schools should only have to negotiate wages and benefits with teachers unions.

The agreement, announced Tuesday, would require that districts negotiate salary and benefits, supplemental contracts such as coaching contracts and overtime pay. It would also give each side in the negotiations the option to choose five additional items from the current list of mandatory items. Additional items could be added only if both sides agree to negotiate them.

Those additional issues include such things as dress codes, grievance procedures, disciplinary procedures, evaluation protocols and the standards for terminating or non-renewing a teacher, among other issues.

"Today’s announcement illustrates the progress that can be achieved through meaningful discussion among education professionals," the groups said in a statement announcing the agreement.

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Gov. Docking opposed Statehouse chapel in 1960

Controversy over setting up an interfaith, non-denominational "prayer and meditation" room in the statehouse is apparently nothing new.

In response to an article posted on this site Tuesday, Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, stopped by the office with a clipping from one of the Journal-World's "Old Home Town" columns from several years back. It noted that on that particular day (the clipping wasn't dated) in 1960, two Lawrence legislators, both Republicans, chastised then-Gov. George Docking, a Democrat, for opposing a bill to set up such a room.

State Sen. Don Hults and Rep. Odd Williams, both Lawrence Republicans, labeled Democratic Gov. George Docking's opposition to "the establishment of an interfaith meditation room in the statehouse as 'sacrilegious' and 'blasphemous.' Docking had said he feared the room might be used by legislators to store and hide their liquor bottles."

During a hearing on a new bill this week, Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, said the current "prayer and meditation" room is non-denominational and does not display religious images or material favoring one religion over another.

We went down to that room to check that out and saw that it is indeed adorned with numerous Judeo-Christian images and objects. But we can report with confidence that no liquor bottles could be seen.

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Lawmakers want to make Statehouse chapel permanent

Several Kansas lawmakers are pushing a bill this year that would make a prayer and meditation room in the Statehouse a permanent fixture.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on H.B. 2075, establishing the "capitol meditation room."

The room is located on the second floor of the Capitol, across the hall to the north of the governor's office. In 2012, lawmakers considered a bill to set aside a room in the capitol for prayer and meditation. It passed the House by a vote of 107-17 but later died in the Senate. Instead, Gov. Sam Brownback made available a room that had been designated for part of his office staff.

Former Rep. Arlen Seigfried, a former Republican majority leader who sponsored the 2012 bill, testified in favor of the bill, saying it would place the designation into statute and ensure that a future governor could not dismantle the room simply by executive order. He said that setting aside time for prayer and personal reflection had been important to him as a legislator.

Committee chairman Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, also testified in favor, saying it would be the "easiest" bill the committee is likely to consider this year. And in response to a question from Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, he assured committee members that the room was non-denominational and did not contain decorations that favored one religion over another.

But an inspection of the room later in the day revealed that it is, in fact, decorated with several paintings and other items depicting Judeo-Christian themes, including a painting of Jesus, bathed in a shower of light, kneeling in prayer; another depicting Moses before the burning bush; and still another depicting Moses beside the Ark of the Covenant. There is also a green and white flag with the words "appeal to heaven" over a pine tree.

No one testified in opposition to the bill. Brunk said he intends to bring the bill up for a vote in committee at a later date so it can be voted on by the full House.

A painting depicting Jesus in prayer is on display in a "prayer and meditation" room at the Kansas Statehouse. Lawmakers who say the room does not favor one religion over another are pushing a bill to make the room a permanent fixture in the capitol

A painting depicting Jesus in prayer is on display in a "prayer and meditation" room at the Kansas Statehouse. Lawmakers who say the room does not favor one religion over another are pushing a bill to make the room a permanent fixture in the capitol by Peter Hancock

This painting depicting Moses next to the Ark of the Covenant is on display in a "non-denominational" prayer and meditation room in the Kansas Statehouse.

This painting depicting Moses next to the Ark of the Covenant is on display in a "non-denominational" prayer and meditation room in the Kansas Statehouse. by Peter Hancock

Reply 3 comments from Jim Russo Phillip Chappuie Greg Cooper Paul R.  Getto

State party conventions look ahead to 2016

Fresh off of their "clean sweep" victories in the 2014 elections, Kansas Republicans will gather in Topeka this weekend to elect their party leadership and start strategizing for 2016.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a lot more work and soul-searching ahead of them before their state convention in March.

The off-year conventions typically focus on electing new leadership to the parties' district and state committees, and to begin organizing — and fundraising — for the next round of elections.

State GOP chairman Kelly Arnold is running unopposed for another term, as is most of the rest of the leadership team. The only change will be in the office of vice chair. Michelle Martin is stepping down and is expected to be replaced by Ashley McMillan Hutchinson, a former executive director of the party.

The GOP convention kicks off Friday evening at the Capitol Plaza Hotel. Friday night is mostly a group of receptions hosted by Gov. Sam Brownback and other elected officials. The anti-abortion group Kansans for Life will hold a prayer breakfast Saturday morning, followed by more receptions with Sen. Pat Roberts, U.S. Reps. Mike Pompeo and Tim Huelskamp, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Those will be followed by district committee meetings. The state committee meets at 3:30 p.m. to formally elect officers.

For the Democrats, whose convention is in March, things are a lot less settled. Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon is not running for another term, and the search is on for someone to take the helm of the party that was the victim of the GOP's clean sweep in which Republicans won every statewide elected office, along with all four congressional seats, and widened their majority in the Kansas House.

Wagnon and others within the party have said support now appears to be coalescing around Larry Meeker of Johnson County. Meeker, who holds a doctorate in business administration, is a former mayor of Lake Quivira who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas House.

In 2012, his name was left off the ballot, he says, because Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office lost his paperwork; Kobach says it was because Meeker failed to submit the forms. He ran as an independent anyway but lost in a three-way race to Republican Brett Hildabrand, with Libertarian Michael Kerner picking up 11 percent of the vote. In 2014, he got on the ballot as a Democrat but lost again in the same three-way race.

Democrats will hold their convention, known as "Washington Days," March 6-7 in Topeka.

Reply 2 comments from Melinda Henderson

Brownback defends education funding

Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday defended his proposal to do away with the state school finance formula, saying it's one of the reasons the state is facing a large revenue shortfall this year.

He also subtly laid part of the blame on the Kansas State Department of Education for giving estimates of how much the formula would cost this year, estimates that later turned out to be too low.

“We have proposed stable funding for K-12 as appropriated in FY ’15, which included an increase of approximately $200 million," Brownback said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. "The previous Kansas State Department of Education estimate for the 2014-2015 school year was understated by more than $60 million."

That is partially true, although the agency had warned legislators last year that its estimates were only best guesses because nobody could predict at the time how districts would respond to new funding made available as a result of a Kansas Supreme Court order.

In March, the Supreme Court upheld part of a lower court ruling that said the state's failure to fully fund so-called "equalization" aid for poor school districts was unconstitutional. It ordered the Legislature to fully fund equalization for local option budgets, which lawmakers had held flat during the Great Recession, as well as capital outlay equalization, which the Legislature had stopped funding altogether.

Lawmakers agreed to fully fund those two aid programs, but it was not clear at the time how districts would respond. That's because school districts don't set their budgets until August each year, after they know for certain how much funding they can expect from the state.

The department had estimated at the time that the increased aid would cost about $119 million. But as it turned out, a lot of districts that had cut back in those areas when the Legislature wasn't fully funding equalization took advantage of the new funding available this year by raising their LOB and capital outlay budgets.

That resulted in about $64 million in unexpected costs to the state.

"The Legislature cannot properly budget state resources when an unpredictable formula, responsible for more than half of our state general fund expenditures, is complicated by incorrect information," Brownback said. "This is exactly the reason why a new formula is necessary."

Brownback has proposed to fund that extra $64 million this year. But his budget proposal for the next two fiscal years strikes that money out. That's part of the $127 million cut that K-12 schools would take in their operating budgets each of the next two years under Brownback's plan.

Brownback's plan calls for lumping base state aid and the two kinds of equalization aid into one lump sum and distributing it to districts in the form of block grants for the next two years. Those block grants are based on the current fiscal year's funding, minus the $64 million in additional costs this year, and minus some of next year's increased pension contributions.

Democrats, moderate Republicans and other education advocates are saying it doesn't matter whether the Legislature uses a formula to distribute the money or not. That's because a three-judge trial court in December ruled that the overall level of funding for public schools is already unconstitutionally low, and the cuts in Brownback's budget proposal would only make that situation worse.

The adequacy of overall funding was a question the Supreme Court had referred back to the trial court last year for reconsideration.

Reply 12 comments from Merrill Eileen Jones Greg Cooper Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Lynn Grant James Howlette Lane Signal Larry Sturm Renee Patrick

Brownback’s K-12 cuts larger than first thought

The cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback is proposing in school district operating funds would total $127.4 million next year, according to a new analysis by the Kansas State Department of Education, much larger than the $107 million first estimated when the administration outlined its budget plan last week.

But the department says it cannot estimate how that would affect individual districts because the administration has not yet proposed a bill explaining how the money would be distributed among the state's 286 school districts.

Officials in the department's school finance division prepared the report for briefings in the House and Senate Republican caucuses. It shows that the governor is proposing to combine three kinds of aid that go to school districts — general state aid; local option budget equalization; and capital outlay equalization — into a single block grant for districts.

During the 2013-2014 school year, those three aid programs added up to $3.137 billion. But the governor's plan calls for reducing that to $3.009 billion for each of the next two years.

But because of increases in pension contributions over the next two years, the total cut to K-12 education in the governor's budget would be $22.5 million.

Rep. Ron Ryckman, Jr., R-Olathe, said he hoped to learn by the end of the day Wednesday when the administration plans to submit a formal bill explaining how the funds would be distributed and which committee the bill would be assigned to.

Reply 13 comments from Greg Cooper Bob Reinsch David Albertson Lawrence Freeman Eileen Jones James Garvey Larry Sturm Phillip Chappuie Dorothy Hoyt-Reed Joe Blackford II

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