Entries from blogs tagged with “politics”

State water plan funding hits roadblock in Kansas House

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 to 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."

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Budget talks continue; hemp bill advances; property values up

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.


Bill would target wild blackberries as noxious weeds

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.


Taxes, budget, abortion and hemp on this week’s legislative agenda

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.


The question about the governor: Lawmakers discuss possibility of Brownback leaving

In any given year, no matter who the governor is, one of the basic questions lawmakers have to deal with is what the governor will accept. That's just as true for big issues like budgets and taxes as it is for relatively obscure issues like funding the state water plan.

Normally, legislative leaders deal with that by having regular talks with the governor, or meeting with his or her staff, and talking about the details of legislation. What does the governor want? What will he or she accept or not accept? What can the leaders pass through their respective chambers?

Throughout this session, though, members of both parties in both chambers have complained that they have found it increasingly difficult to do that with Gov. Sam Brownback. For some, the frustration started the opening week of the session when, after convincing lawmakers two years ago to repeal the school finance law that had been in place since the early 1990s and begin work on crafting a new one, Brownback offered no specific proposal of his own, saying that was a legislative responsibility.

And now with the specific news that he may, or may not, leave office soon to accept a job in Rome as the Trump administration's U.N. ambassador for agriculture and food agencies, one might think the problem might get even worse.

Surprisingly, though, members of both parties, and in both chambers, are saying it almost doesn't matter anymore where the governor goes because they're working on their own agendas, at their own schedules.

"I don't know that it's a big consideration to us at this point," said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia. "We know what we need to do. We need to come up with a structurally balanced budget and a tax plan that supports it. I don't know that we've worried at this point what the governor will sign or won't sign. I think we're trying to find consensus within our own body about what that budget and tax looks like, and we'll pass it out of here when we find it, regardless of who's in the governor's chair."

Brownback hasn't officially commented on the story, first reported Wednesday by Kansas Public Radio, which cited a single anonymous source. But he did nothing to dampen the speculation Thursday when, responding to questions from reporters, he declined to commit to staying in the governor's office through the end of the session.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer participates in a Humanitarian award ceremony Thursday, March 9, 2017, at the statehouse in Topeka, Kans. The governor said he has no comment at this time about the possibility of being named to an ambassadorship in Rome representing the U.S. at United Nations agricultural organizations. (Thad Allton/Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, right, along with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer participates in a Humanitarian award ceremony Thursday, March 9, 2017, at the statehouse in Topeka, Kans. The governor said he has no comment at this time about the possibility of being named to an ambassadorship in Rome representing the U.S. at United Nations agricultural organizations. (Thad Allton/Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

The only statement from the governor's office concerning the possibility of his resigning came Wednesday from his spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, who said, "Governor Brownback is focused on working with the Kansas legislature to balance the budget and pass a modern school funding system."

But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said that's not what she has seen. As recently as Tuesday, just before the Senate shot down, by a vote of 1-37, Brownback's tax proposal for balancing the state budget, she accused Brownback of refusing to work with lawmakers.

"We met yesterday (Monday). We had a leadership meeting yesterday," she said. "We threw out some concepts and he wasn't very interested in budget stability and predictability, so this is where we start."

Asked in advance what she thought a negative vote would mean, she said: "For most legislators, all it's saying is the governor is refusing to acknowledge that we have a deep budget hole, and he's refusing to give us solutions. If anybody's playing games, it's the governor."

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the assistant minority leader in the Senate, agreed that the prospect of the governor leaving midsession is having little impact on the legislative process.

"We've been pretty much left on our own to deal with the taxes, to deal with the budget, to deal with school finance," she said. "His office has not been engaged at all, from what I can see, other than to wield his veto pen. So I think we'll just keep doing what we're doing and deal with whoever is in the governor's seat when the time comes."

Meanwhile on the House side, Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he's been struggling to get Brownback's attention on a relatively mundane issue, but one that Brownback has said is a high priority: finding a way to fund a long-term plan to protect the state's dwindling water resources.

"I called the governor's staff this (Thursday) morning and said, you guys have not engaged," Sloan said. "The governor hasn't done anything. His agencies haven't come in and said, 'This is what we want.' They all supported the Blue Ribbon Task Force (which recommended earmarking about $50 million out of existing sales tax revenue for water projects). But they backed off because they knew that wasn't going to pass. But they're not offering anything else. They're not supporting anything else."

Sloan is one of the few Republicans willing to say out loud what many will say only privately, that he thinks it might be easier on the Legislature if Brownback does leave.

"If (Lt. Gov.) Jeff Colyer becomes governor, yes he has ties to the administration's policies, but he's not identified with most of them," Sloan said. "And so it may be easier for him to accept an income tax reform bill than it is for Governor Brownback."

One exception to that, Sloan acknowledged, is KanCare, the state's privatized Medicaid system, which is largely the product of Colyer's efforts.

"On most issues he is not (tied to Brownback's policies)," Sloan said. "On KanCare he certainly is and I would not expect him to support a Medicaid expansion bill. But he may have more flexibility on the income tax."

Sen. Kelly, however, said she thinks it's too early for lawmakers to start pondering whether Brownback or Colyer will be the governor by the end of the session.

"It depends, one, on if he gets the position, which he has not gotten yet, and, two, if he can move in before he's confirmed," she said. "If he has to wait until Senate confirmation, he could be here until December."


Lansing prison project going forward, for now

The House Appropriations Committee on Monday gave tentative approval — very tentative — to a request by the Brownback administration for permission to replace the original 1860s-era housing unit at the Lansing Correctional Facility and sign a lease-purchase contract for the construction of a new one. There is almost universal agreement among lawmakers and, well, almost everyone that the old housing unit, which literally dates back to the Lincoln administration and has no air conditioning, is obsolete and in dire need of replacement, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s expensive to operate and requires more staff to manage than a modern prison. The plan, according to Department of Corrections officials, is to close that part of the prison, which currently houses both maximum and medium security inmates, and to demolish a separate medium security building on the Lansing complex. Then the state would contract with a firm to build a new unit on that site that would replace the other two. Corrections officials say they think they can save enough just through improved efficiency to pay for the project, with maybe a little left over to give pay raises to correctional workers. But the idea of embarking on a major construction project that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars is unsettling to many, given the state’s precarious financial condition and the fact that the committee still hasn’t had a full presentation on the idea. Plus, ever since the debacle last year over the Docking State Office Building, there isn’t a whole lot of good will between the Legislature and the governor’s office when it comes to lease-purchase contracts. Strictly speaking, the governor doesn’t need legislative approval to sign a lease-purchase contract, an agreement by which the administration hires a private company to construct a building, then leases it back from that company until it’s paid off. But as the Legislature showed last year in the Docking building controversy, there are lots of things it can do to block a project, such as denying authority to make the lease payments or to tear down an existing building. What the committee did Monday was merely to accept a subcommittee report that makes a recommendation for the Department of Corrections’ budget for the next two fiscal years. That report includes language allowing the lease-purchase agreement for the Lansing prison. There were some on the committee, including Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard of Lawrence and Sidney Carlin of Manhattan, who were reluctant to go along with the recommendation, and they initially moved to remove that language from the report, at least until the committee has a full hearing, with public input, on the proposal. “I just feel very uncomfortable approving it the way it is when we haven’t had the hearing on it,” Ballard said. The committee actually did hear an informal presentation on the idea in early February when the Department of Corrections asked that it be included in the “rescission” bill aimed at balancing the current fiscal year’s budget. But the committee balked at that time, saying it still needed to gather more information. Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, however, said there would be a full hearing later and that simply accepting the subcommittee report does not lock the full committee into anything. The subcommittee report simply becomes part of the full “mega” budget bill that will be debated and amended later before it goes to the full House. He assured the committee that there would be full hearings on the project, with public comment, later this month. And Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Safety, suggested that if the Legislature doesn’t go along with the plan, the administration has other options, including signing a lease-purchase agreement to build a new facility on open ground somewhere else, possibly Abilene, which he said has been offered as a potentially better site than Lansing. Mike Gaito, director of capital improvements for the Department of Corrections, said afterward that he had not heard any discussion of building a new prison in Abilene. He also said the department wants to work with the Legislature, even though it does have independent authority to sign a lease-purchase agreement on its own. “We want to see what the legislators’ point of views are anyway,” he said. During a separate presentation to the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Monday afternoon, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood tried to put to rest concerns that the project was an attempt to privatize the Lansing prison. “This will be a state-operated facility with state employees,” Norwood said.

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A threat to close schools, a search for $1.6 billion in funding, and a host of other issues await lawmakers as they return to Topeka

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers return to the Statehouse Monday from a week-long break to start the second phase of the 2017 session. And thanks to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last week, school funding will immediately go to the top of the agenda.

That won’t be the only issue they deal with. Still left on the table after the first half of the session are issues like Medicaid expansion, guns on campuses, balancing the budget for the rest of this fiscal year, and of course taxes, which is now closely related to the school funding issue.

But it’s likely that school funding will suck a lot of oxygen out of the room for the next several weeks, especially given the court’s implicit threat to close public schools on July 1 unless lawmakers come up with a new funding plan that will meet constitutional muster.

“So if by June 30, 2017, the State has not satisfactorily demonstrated to this court that any K-12 public education financing system the legislature enacts is capable of meeting the adequacy requirements of Article 6, then a lifting of the stay of today's mandate will mean that the state's education financing system is constitutionally invalid and therefore void,” the court said in its latest ruling in the case Gannon vs. Kansas.

Translation: The court will not allow the state to operate an unconstitutional school funding system.

Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who serves on the House K-12 Education Budget Committee — the panel in charge of crafting a new school funding formula — said that group could begin sifting through the Gannon decision.

Tuesday is currently reserved for a joint meeting between the K-12 Budget Committee and the Senate Education Committee. The plan was to hear from Education Commissioner Randy Watson about a program for managing and maintaining student data, but that plan could easily change.

In its budget proposal submitted last fall, the Kansas State Board of Education offered a glimpse of what it could cost to satisfy the Supreme Court.

That budget proposal was built around the state board’s new “vision” for public schools, called “KansasCan,” which it unveiled in 2015. In many ways, that vision mirrors the so-called Rose standards that the Supreme Court said it will use in judging the adequacy of school funding.

The plan is aimed at making sure all students are ready for college or a career by the time they graduate from high school. To do that, it looks beyond the basic reading and math scores that are often used as the basic measure of whether students are succeeding, and calls on schools to emphasize a number of “soft skills” like citizenship, punctuality, social engagement and generally getting along with others.

The price tag: at least $511 million in additional funding for the 2017-2018 school year; and another $330 million on top of that in the second year.

According to current revenue estimates, however, without revenue increases or spending cuts, the state is already projected to be $755 million short of what is needed to keep up with current spending. If one adds that to the state board’s price tag for adequately funding public schools, it comes to nearly $1.6 billion.

Other issues

Besides school finance, here’s a look at where the Legislature stands on some of the other hottest issues of the session.

Medicaid expansion: On the final day before lawmakers went on break, the Kansas House voted by an 81-44 margin to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would extend coverage to an estimated 181,000 people. That bill now goes to the Senate.

That vote, however, represented a strange cross-current between state and national political trends. Until this year, the Legislature was dominated by conservative Republicans who vehemently opposed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

That changed after the November elections, when Kansas voters elected a much more moderate Legislature. Nationally, however, that same election produced President Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, all of whom have vowed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which could well mean the end of expanded Medicaid.

In his address to a joint session of Congress last week, Trump reiterated that pledge, prompting loud applause from the Republican side of the aisle. But there is great division within the GOP ranks over what, if anything, to replace Obamacare with.

That prompted former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio to suggest last week that Congress probably won’t repeal the law after all, but only tweak it in places to make it look more conservative.

For his part, Gov. Sam Brownback remains adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid, but the Feb. 23 vote in the House suggests there could be enough support to override a veto — at least in that chamber — if supporters can round up three more yes votes.

Concealed carry laws: If the Legislature does nothing to stop it this session, a law enacted in 2013 will go into effect requiring most publicly-owned buildings, including college and university campus buildings, to allow people to carry concealed handguns inside.

Both the House and Senate Federal and State Affairs committees have rejected bills that would roll back at least part of those requirements. But opponents of concealed carry believe they have enough votes to pass such a bill through the full chambers. All they need is another gun-related bill to come to the floor so they can add an amendment.

Two such bills are pending in the House committee, and it’s unlikely those bills can be blocked.

One, requested by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, would re-enact what’s called a “reciprocity” rule that would say Kansas will recognize concealed-carry permits issued by other states, as long as those states recognize one from Kansas.

That law was repealed in 2014 when Kansas stopped requiring people to have permits, or even any training, before they could carry concealed weapons. Other states, though, still require permits, and Kansans who want to carry weapons when they travel out-of-state still need to obtain one, and they need Kansas to reinstate its reciprocity law.

The other bill is being requested by law enforcement agencies. It would amend the list of people who are not allowed to possess handguns so it would mirror federal law.

Current year’s budget: Even with a positive revenue report for February, the state is projected to be about $281 million short of what is needed to fund the last four months of the current fiscal year’s budget.

The House passed and sent to the Senate a bill that largely mirrored Brownback’s own proposal, which called for borrowing about $317 million from a state idle funds account and delaying scheduled payments to schools and the state pension system.

Republican leaders in the Senate, however, say they don’t want to use one-time sources of funding, and they are pushing for actual spending cuts this year in order to “structurally” balance the budget. So far, though, they haven’t been able to get most of the rest of the Senate — or even most of the GOP caucus — to go along with that.

Tax plan: The final days before the break were marked by dramatic efforts to push through a bill that would have raised more than $1 billion over the next two years by repealing many of the signature income tax cuts that Brownback championed in 2012.

Brownback vetoed the bill. The House voted to override his veto, but the override effort fell a few votes short in the Senate.

Republican leaders in the Senate, however, said their only objection to the bill was that it raised individual income tax rates retroactively to Jan. 1. Bills have already been introduced in both chambers that are identical to the bill Brownback vetoed, minus the retroactive provision.

Those bills are expected to see quick action after lawmakers return Monday.

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Kansas medical marijuana bill may get committee vote after break

A bill that would legalize the use of marijuana for certain medical purposes could come up for a vote soon in a Kansas Senate committee, possibly in early March after lawmakers return from their midsession break. But the chairman of that committee isn't predicting its chances of passing.

"I think we ought to vote. We shouldn't try to dodge votes. But I haven't made a final determination on that," said Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, who chairs the Federal and State Affairs Committee.

LaTurner said he plans to start working bills in that committee after lawmakers return on Monday, March 6.

Lawmakers adjourned Thursday for a 10-day break after passing the midpoint of the session known as "turnaround day," the deadline for most bills to pass out of the chamber where they originated. But the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which often deals with hot-button social issues, is one of a handful of committees whose bills are exempt from that deadline.

The medical marijuana bill — Senate Bill 155, also called the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act — is the work of Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, who said he has introduced it in four of the last five years, with no success so far.

Haley, however, said he thinks "the greater national awareness of medical marijuana" may give it a better chance this year.

In short, it would authorize the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to issue permits for people with certain medical conditions to use marijuana for treatment of those conditions. It also authorizes the creation of nonprofit "compassion care centers" that would be allowed to dispense marijuana to those registered patients.

The medical conditions covered include cancer, glaucoma, positive HIV status, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn's disease, agitation of Alzheimer's disease or nail-patella syndrome. People could also qualify if they have any medical condition that results in cachexia or wasting syndrome; severe pain; nausea; seizures; or severe and persistent muscle spasms like those associated with multiple sclerosis.

The language of the bill notes that marijuana use is still a violation of federal law but that states are not required to enforce or prosecute violations of federal law. It also notes that 26 other states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana.

Haley said LaTurner has not personally given him an assurance that the bill will come up for a vote. "But I know that he is hearing from many of his own constituents in his district in Crawford County that the bill deserves to be heard," he said.

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Light day in House lets freshman lawmakers get some stage time

The Kansas House worked through a handful of mostly noncontroversial bills Monday, giving a few freshman legislators a chance to learn some of the ropes.

Whenever a bill comes out of committee, someone from that committee is assigned the task of "carrying" the bill onto the floor. That means he or she gets up to the podium, explains the details of the bill, stands for questions and responds to arguments against its passage.

For major bills, that task usually falls to the committee chairman or vice chairman, or the person on the panel with the most knowledge of the subject.

But the bills worked on the floor of the House Monday didn't involve subjects that were terribly controversial, and so as a form of initiation into the legislative process, a few freshmen were given that task, and the opportunity to gain a little experience.

The one that proved most controversial was a bill dealing with elections and advance balloting. Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, had personally pushed for the bill, which would ensure that if someone mails in an advance ballot before Election Day, but it doesn't arrive at the county election office until after the deadline, it will still be counted in the final canvass.

Miller actually served in the Legislature during the 1980s, during Democratic Gov. John Carlin's administration, but he freely admitted he couldn't remember the last time he'd carried a bill on the floor.

The debate became complicated when Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, offered an amendment that would also allow people to drop off their advance ballot at a polling place on Election Day. Although many advance voters try to do that, he said, it's technically not allowed because advance ballots are supposed to be at the county office before polls close at 7 p.m., and poll workers don't return in-person ballots until after that time.

Parker's amendment passed, 67-57, but other lawmakers said afterward that it would have to be cleaned up in the Senate because the amendment doesn't specify whether the ballot can be dropped off at the voter's own polling place or any other polling place in the county, or even the state.

Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, D-Wichita, carried a bill authorizing the formation of "public benefit corporations" in Kansas. Those are corporations that include, as part of their overall business plan, a commitment to providing some social or environmental benefit. It would have the effect of shielding those corporations from shareholder lawsuits if they pursue activities that do not maximize profits or stock value.

Examples, she said, include Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Toms Shoes and the outdoor clothing maker Patagonia.

"Can you tell?" Bishop asked, when another lawmaker asked if it was her first time carrying a bill.

"Would you like any amendments to the bill?" asked Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, another freshman House member. "I'd rather not," Bishop replied. "OK then, never mind," Cox said.

Rep. Eric Smith, R-Burlington, carried a bill giving county commissions more autonomy in setting their own meeting dates. And Rep. KC Ohaebosim (pronounced "o-HA-bo-sim"), D-Wichita, carried a bill clarifying that bicyclists need to have a rear reflector or a rear light on their bicycles, but not both, when riding at night.

Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, who is actually in his second term in the House, carried a bill allowing water districts to register their official vehicles once every five years, instead of every year, which is how the state treats vehicles from city or county utility departments.

All of the bills advanced toward final action on uncontested voice votes. Final votes are scheduled for Tuesday.


Lawmakers head into ‘turnaround week’ while waiting for Brownback tax decision

Kansas lawmakers have a big question hanging over their heads as they head toward the midpoint of the session, known as "turnaround" day. The question is, what will Gov. Sam Brownback do with the $1 billion tax bill they just sent him that would reverse many of the signature tax cuts he championed in 2012?

So far, Brownback has said only that he won't sign the bill into law, but that leaves two other options: vetoing the bill, or letting it become law without his signature.

The bill came close to getting the two-thirds majority needed on a preliminary vote in the House on Wednesday last week, but a number of those peeled off on final action the next day, when it passed, 76-48. It takes 84 votes in the House to override a veto.

Still, there is some belief in the House that it could pick up votes on a veto override, if only because House members are ready to move on to other issues — passing a new school finance formula being chief among them — and they don't want to take any more tax-increasing votes than they absolutely have to.

It's a different story on the Senate side where the tax bill only got 22 votes — one more than the minimum needed for passage, but five short of the two-thirds needed for a veto override. Some of those yes votes came with a good deal of reluctance, and a veto could be seen as an opportunity to go back to the bargaining table and work something out with the governor's office.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, however, has laid down a challenge. If Brownback does opt to veto the bill, the onus will be on him to come up with a budget plan for the next two years that doesn't rely on delayed payments to schools or the state pension system, or other kinds of one-time money. And with a looming Kansas Supreme Court decision on school finance hanging over everyone's heads, cutting K-12 education — which is half the state budget — is probably off the table as well.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when, or even if, Brownback will have to concede that one of the hallmarks of his tax policy cannot be salvaged in this environment. That's the so-called LLC "loophole" that allows more than 330,000 farmers and business owners to pay no state income tax at all on their nonwage business income.

That costs the state treasury an estimated $230 million a year by itself, a sizeable sum to be sure, but far short of what is needed to balance the state's budget over the next two years without significant spending cuts.

The tax bill was just passed by the Senate on Friday, and it usually takes at least a few days for the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate to produce the official copy that goes to the governor, with signatures from the House Speaker and Senate President. Once it lands on his desk, the clock starts ticking and Brownback will have 10 days to make a decision one way or the other.

In the meantime, lawmakers will not be sitting idly by waiting for that decision. Monday starts the beginning of "turnaround week," when the House and Senate spend the majority of their time working bills on the floor of each chamber until Thursday, which is the deadline for each chamber to pass most of their own bills.

That deadline applies to all bills except those that have been in an "exempt" committee, which are mainly the budget and tax committees, and Federal and State Affairs.

There is a process that each chamber's leadership uses to get around that deadline known as the "blessing" of bills that are high priority, but which still need more time. It's the kind of process that usually makes people's eyes glaze over when it's explained, but it involves removing a bill from a committee and referring it to an exempt committee for a day or so, then referring it back to the original committee. Once a bill has touched an exempt committee, even if only for a few hours, it's considered "blessed" and therefore exempt from the deadline.

The order in which bills come up for debate on the calendar is entirely at the discretion of leadership, so it's nearly impossible to know more than a day in advance which bills are coming up.

On Monday, though, the House takes up a few interesting bills, including one creating a new business category known as "public benefit corporations," which are for-profit businesses that include as part of their business plans some kind of public benefit, such as environmental sustainability or some kind of social justice issue. Presumably, that could shield such businesses from shareholder lawsuits if they pursue activities that aren't necessarily in line with maximizing stock value.

Another bill dealing with bicycle safety could generate some debate. It would require cyclists riding at night to have either a red reflector that's visible from a certain distance or a red lamp that is also visible from a distance. Current law requires both, as well as a front light. Law enforcement officials have expressed concern that when a cyclist who has only one rear device gets struck by a vehicle from behind, the vehicle driver can use as a defense the fact that the cyclist wasn't in compliance with the two-device law.

Another bill would clarify a procedure about advance voting to make sure that a ballot would still be counted if it is mailed and postmarked before Election Day but doesn't arrive at the county election office until after polls closed. Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said that has been an issue in many counties, including Shawnee County which recently lost its central mail distribution center. As a result of that, mail sent and received within the city could take a number of days to arrive because it is now routed through Kansas City, Mo., for processing.

The Senate's debate calendar for Monday was not officially posted as of Sunday afternoon.


Senate lays out tax debate schedule; Democrats announce details of Bernie Sanders appearance

Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate announced their plans for debating tax bills the rest of this week, and one scenario could put the just-passed House plan on Gov. Sam Brownback's desk early next week.

That, however, depends on what happens Thursday morning in the House when it votes on final passage of its plan, which would raise income taxes to the tune of just over $1 billion over the next two years. The House advanced that bill to final action on a surprising 83-39 vote, and if it picks up another one or two votes on Thursday, that would put it over the two-thirds majority threshold for overriding an almost-certain governor's veto.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, announced on the Senate floor Wednesday that, assuming the House passes its bill, the Senate will send it straight to the floor for debate on Friday, bypassing the normal process of holding on to the bill while the Senate sends its own bill over to the House.

Should the Senate pass the House bill without any changes — which would be highly unusual — that would send the bill directly to the governor's desk.

Before any of that happens, however, the Senate plans to take up what has come to be known as the Senate Democrats plan on Thursday. That bill would raise an estimated $1.2 billion over the next two years.

And in another unusual move, Democratic Sen. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, the ranking minority member on the Senate tax committee, will be the one who carries the bill on the floor, meaning he will explain its contents and answer questions from other senators.

Holland acknowledged that it's unusual for a member of the minority party to carry such a major piece of legislation on the floor. But given the fact that the bill has been dubbed "the Democrats bill," he thought it was probably fitting.

It wasn't entirely clear what the strategy was behind putting two tax bills on the debate calendar back to back, or what the implications would be if both bills pass. But Denning said he sees nothing wrong with doing that.

"You know, everybody's been talking about tax policy for four years," he said. "We're all comfortable with the bill; we know what's in it. Everybody's ready to have the debate. We're getting close to Turnaround, so the most efficient day to do that is if (House Bill) 2178 gets out of the House, just bring it to the Committee of the Whole and save us a couple of days."

Turnaround Day, which is Thursday, Feb. 23, is the traditional midpoint of the session and the deadline for most nontax and nonspending bills to pass out of their chamber of origin.

Both the House and Senate Democrats bills would eliminate the so-called LLC loophole on pass-through business income, and both would reinstate a third, higher tax bracket on top of the existing two. The main difference is that under the Senate Democrats plan, that higher bracket would kick in earlier: anything over $35,000 a year for individuals, or $70,000 a year for couples filing jointly. The threshold in the House plan is $50,000 for single filers and $100,000 for couples filing jointly.

Also, the Senate Democrats would keep rates for the bottom two tax brackets the same: 2.7 percent for the bottom bracket and 4.6 percent for the middle bracket. But for the upper bracket, the rate would go to 6.45 percent.

Under the House plan, rates for the middle bracket would increase to 5.25 percent, and the upper bracket rate would go to 5.45 percent.

Details of Bernie Sanders event

The Kansas Democratic Party confirmed this week that former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders will speak in Topeka at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, in the Topeka High School gymnasium. But they implore people who want tickets to the event not to call the high school. Tickets are available through the Democratic Party's website.

Sanders will be the keynote speaker at the state party's annual Washington Days convention being held that weekend. The convention itself will be at the Downtown Ramada Inn in Topeka.

Sanders finished a close second for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But he won the Kansas Democratic caucuses in March by more than a three-to-one margin.

In the U.S. Senate, he is listed as an independent from Vermont because he was not officially a member of the Vermont Democratic Party when he was last elected. Sanders refers to himself as a Democratic Socialist.

Since the election he has been an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump's policies on immigration, financial regulation and other issues.


House to move forward on taxes, spending cuts, while Senate regroups

Following a near-meltdown in the Senate last week, Republican leaders in the Kansas House plan to move forward with their own plans for balancing this year's budget and raising taxes to balance the next two years' budgets.

On Thursday last week, the Senate abruptly called off debate on its own tax and spending plan after support for the spending cuts collapsed over the previous 24 hours. Among other things, that bill would have slashed $198 million in general fund spending out of the last four or five months of the fiscal year. The bulk of that, $129 million, would have come out of K-12 education.

The Senate tax plan, which was more or less paired with the spending cuts, would have raised about $660 million for the next two years by repealing the so-called LLC exemption that was part of the 2012 tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback championed, and by raising individual tax rates on everyone.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, told reporters Friday that he planned to meet over the weekend with GOP leaders and other members to decide how they want to proceed on the budget and taxes.

On the table is a House tax bill that would raise just more than $1 billion in new revenue for the next two fiscal years by eliminating the LLC exemption, raising individual rates and reinstating a third tax bracket for individuals earning more than $50,000 a year, or couples filing jointly earning more than $100,000 a year.

The House hasn't yet produced a spending-cut bill — formally known as a "rescission" bill because it would rescind spending authority previously approved — but Ryckman said the Appropriations Committee planned to work on that Monday and Tuesday.

During an informal Q & A with reporters after the House adjourned Friday, Ryckman was asked where the line is, if there is one, between an acceptable and unacceptable cut to public schools.

"We’re still having talks and conversations about where that is," he said. "We’re trying to balance any decision with what it will look like to each individual district based on their individual data so there’s not disruption in services."

One interesting difference between the House and Senate approaches is how willing GOP leaders are in each chamber to work with Brownback.

When Brownback rolled out his plan in January — which called for delaying payments to public schools and KPERS, and borrowing $317 million from an idle funds investment account — Senate President Susan Wagle was quick to criticize it for relying too heavily on one-time money and failing to address the "structural deficit" in the state's budget: the gap between regular, recurring revenues coming in and regular recurring expenses being paid out.

Likewise, Brownback wasted little time lashing out at the Senate's tax plan, saying the higher rates would "punish the middle class," while repeal of the LLC exemption "needlessly harms the real people that serve as the lifeblood of Kansas."

Since then, some in the Senate have said leaders need to stop thinking about a plan that can get the minimum 21 votes needed for passage, but instead finding a plan that can get the 27 needed to override an almost certain governor's veto.

Ryckman, by contrast, said that probably is not a workable strategy in the 125-member House, where it takes 63 votes to pass a bill and 84 to override a veto.

"What we’ve talked about all session is, it’s not just about finding 63 (yes votes)," he said. "It’s also about finding something the governor will sign. This is part of the process.

"Anytime you’re talking about revenue enhancements, to get to 63 votes, it's very problematic. To get to 84, it’s almost impossible," Ryckman said.

Meanwhile in the Senate, GOP leaders have said they will not let any bills move forward until the chamber comes to a consensus about how to balance this year's budget and how to move forward on taxes. And as far as taxes are concerned, Wagle said, the only element that seems to have 21 votes so far is repeal of the LLC exemption, which would only raise about $230 million a year, far less than what's needed to close the projected $582 million budget gap for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

Given that, she said, she has instructed the Ways and Means Committee to start putting together a budget for the next two fiscal years that would make enough cuts to close that gap.

Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have said they are working with a group of moderate Republicans on an alternative plan that could be discussed in committees sometime this week. Democrats say it would raise about $1.2 billion over the next two years through a combination of repealing the LLC exemption, raising rates, and establishing a third tax bracket that would kick in at $35,000 a year for individuals, or $70,000 a year for married couples filing jointly.

It's worth noting, though, that both the Senate Democrats' plan and the House proposal go much further in raising taxes than the original Senate plan that Brownback criticized so harshly when it first came out of committee.

Ryckman said he has been meeting with Brownback, most recently on Tuesday of last week, to discuss tax policy. So far, he said, the governor has not drawn any lines in the sand about what he absolutely will not accept.

"We're just talking about finding things we can agree on," Ryckman said.


Bernie Sanders to speak at Kansas Democratic Party convention Feb. 25

Kansas Democratic Party officials finally confirmed Tuesday what many people had been saying unofficially on social media for days, that former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders will be the keynote speaker at the party's upcoming state convention known as Washington Days in Topeka.

Sanders is scheduled to speak sometime on Saturday, Feb. 25, but the exact time and location have not yet been determined. The convention will be held at the Downtown Ramada Inn, but an official with the party said the Sanders event will be held at another location in Topeka.

"We're incredibly excited to have Sen. Sanders as our keynote speaker for this year's Washington Days convention," state party executive director Kerry Gooch said in a statement. "He had so much support from Kansas, and we're grateful that he's coming here just for us. He's a true inspiration for so many — and we believe he will see an amazing reception from the people of Kansas."

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd Thursday, March 3, 2016 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd Thursday, March 3, 2016 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds. by Mike Yoder

Sanders, I-Vt., won the Kansas Democratic presidential caucuses by more than a three-to-one margin over Hillary Clinton but failed to win the party's nomination. He held a rally in Lawrence that drew an estimated 4,200 people two days before the caucuses.

The state party convention is typically held sometime around Presidents Day, which is Feb. 20 this year. The major items of business are meetings of the congressional district and state committees. It also serves as a fundraising event and an opportunity for potential candidates to make announcements and start lining up support for the 2018 elections.

The two major fundraising events are an auction on Friday night and a banquet on Saturday that typically features a high-profile keynote speaker, often someone with presidential ambitions. In 2015, the keynote speaker was former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who also ran for the presidential nomination in 2016 but bowed out of the race after the Iowa caucuses. In 2008, the keynote speaker was Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who became Clinton's vice presidential running mate in 2016.

This year, though, party officials said they will not hold a banquet and instead will host Sanders' speech as the main event, in a venue that is still to be determined.

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Civil rights panel calls for federal probe of Kansas voting laws; Kobach says review unnecessary

Kansas’ strict voting laws sometimes act like a poll tax and also disproportionately discourage young voters, a civil rights panel alleges in a draft report that seeks a federal probe into Kansas voting laws.

A panel that advises the U.S. Civil Rights Commission is circulating a draft report that would ask that agency to call for a Justice Department review of Kansas' strict voting rights laws to determine whether the state is in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and other laws.

"Kansas’ proof of citizenship and voter ID requirements under the (Secure and Fair Elections, or) SAFE Act are the strictest in the nation, and may impose a substantially higher burden than that which has been previously challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court," the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in its draft report. "Community groups, local elections officials, and individual citizens all reported struggling to comply with the requirements."

The draft report came out one day before a Kansas Senate committee hears testimony on a bill that would expand the law even further by giving Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office authority to hold "bifurcated" elections in which some voters would only be allowed to vote in federal elections, but not state or local elections, if they register to vote using a federal form that does not require proof of citizenship.

Story continues below.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach testify in January 2016 to the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the impact that the strict voting laws Kobach championed in 2011 are having on voting rights in Kansas.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach testify in January 2016 to the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the impact that the strict voting laws Kobach championed in 2011 are having on voting rights in Kansas. by Peter Hancock

Kobach said asking for a Justice Department review would be unnecessary because the law is already under review in federal court.

"That seems to be a bit redundant to me since the ACLU has already thrown every argument including the kitchen sink at the Kansas SAFE Act, so the legal questions are already being reviewed in federal court," he said.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson is scheduled to hear oral arguments March 3 in a case seeking to declare the proof of citizenship law unconstitutional.

The advisory panel conducted hearings in January 2016 and heard testimony about the impact that the SAFE Act has had on voting rights and voter participation in Kansas. Kobach, who championed passage of that law in 2011, testified at those hearings and said he did not think the laws had had any negative impact on voter participation. But others said the law, and in particular the requirement that people show documentary proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register, had made it much more difficult for people to vote.

The draft report is being circulated to people who submitted testimony or who had expressed interest in being updated on the committee's proceedings. The panel is now taking feedback and suggested changes before issuing its final report. The next meeting of the committee will be by teleconference on Wednesday, Feb. 22.

In its draft report, however, the advisory committee suggests a number of problems with the law and how it has been implemented since it took effect in 2013.

It notes, for example, that people seeking identification documents are supposed to be able to receive them for free from from state agencies. "However, in practice, a number of eligible citizens may be required to pay for their documents. Any such instances may effectively be compared to a poll tax, which is unconstitutional under both the 14th and 24th Amendments."

It also suggests that young voters are disproportionately affected because it only applies to voters who first register in their county after the law took effect in 2013.

And it notes that there have been cases in which voters' information has been lost as it is transferred between agencies such as the Division of Vehicles and county election offices, adding, "Such data loss has resulted in citizens facing requests to submit the same identification documents multiple times, creating confusion and deterring eventual voter participation."

It also suggests that, "Improper or insufficient training of poll workers has resulted in eligible voters being turned away because the poll workers were unaware that the identification provided is in fact considered 'acceptable' under the SAFE Act requirements."

In a telephone interview Monday, Kobach disputed those findings and pointed to a survey his office commissioned, which was submitted as evidence in the federal lawsuit, finding that 77 percent of those surveyed support the proof of citizenship law while only 14 percent opposed the requirement and 9 percent had no opinion.

"The other thing I would say about the report is it is very lopsided," Kobach said. It includes testimony almost entirely from left-wing opponents of proof of citizenship, and I find that problematic when nearly 80 percent of Kansans support the proof of citizenship requirement in scientific surveys."


Gun bill could come up for committee vote Wednesday

At least one of two bills that would partially roll back a mandate to allow concealed weapons in most public buildings is likely to come up for a vote Wednesday in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, who chairs that committee, told the Journal-World Friday that he plans to consider amendments and possibly vote on one of the bills Wednesday, but he had not yet decided which one.

The first bill, which is considered to have the least chance of passing out of committee, would give a permanent exemption for public college and university campuses, public hospitals and mental health centers as well as other buildings owned by local governments.

A hearing on that bill Wednesday drew a large crowd of people testifying in favor of it. But it is believed there are not enough votes on the committee for it to pass.

The second bill, requested by the University of Kansas hospital, would exempt only the hospital facilities within a defined district in Kansas City, Kan.

That bill is thought to have a better chance of passing out of committee, but it will likely be subject to amendment. Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, a supporter of the concealed-carry law, indicated during a hearing Thursday he would be more amenable to it if the exemption is strictly limited to health care facilities in the complex, not to any residential or other type of buildings that he speculated might be developed in the future like a hotel, restaurant or apartment building.

Unless the Legislature acts this year, the four-year exemption that most public facilities received in 2013 will expire July 1.

Others on the committee, though, have said they might want to broaden the bill to include all publicly-owned health care facilities such as hospitals, clinics and community mental health centers.

Even if the bills fail in the committee, supporters of them have said they will look for opportunities to offer them as amendments to other bills that deal with related topics.


Sens. Roberts, Moran unite behind DeVos for education secretary despite widespread criticism

Kansas U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have both expressed support for Betsy DeVos, President Trump's pick for education secretary, despite widespread opposition and concern from the Kansas education community.

DeVos, who is married to billionaire Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune, is widely known as a champion of voucher programs, charter schools and other kinds of "school choice" programs. The two are also known as major contributors to Republican congressional campaigns.

Several Senate Democrats have pointed out that DeVos owes an estimated $5.3 million in fines and late fees to the Ohio Election Commission for violations of that state's campaign finance laws committed by a now-defunct political action committee she headed, the All Children Matter PAC. Those senators have said she should pay off those fines before she is confirmed as education secretary.

DeVos went through a rocky confirmation hearing Jan. 17 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Roberts serves on. During that hearing, she appeared confused about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and at one point said states should have the right to decide whether to enforce it, despite the fact that it is a federal civil rights law.

She also would not commit to the idea that if charter schools and private schools receive public money that they should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

And she was widely criticized nationally for her statements that it should be up to states to decide whether guns should be allowed in schools, mentioning that some locations might need guns for protection against grizzly bears.

In statements released earlier this week, though, Roberts and Moran said that in private meetings with them, DeVos eased their concerns.

"She gave me her commitment that she will fully enforce and implement the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act," Roberts said in a statement released Tuesday.

In a separate statement Wednesday, Moran said: "Ms. DeVos confirmed to me that there will be no federally mandated voucher program in the state of Kansas. She assured me that the state, local districts and school boards will retain their important role in administering our school and determining our students' curriculum."

Moran went on to say that DeVos had vowed to to pursue full funding for IDEA and that "she agrees that we must return control over our students' education to the state and local levels by implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended."

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is the latest renewal of the 1960s-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which directs federal funding for public schools. The previous version of the law was known as No Child Left Behind.

Those statements, however, did not satisfy many education leaders in Kansas.

"Completely unqualified," said Mark Desetti, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "Her entire adult life has been about dismantling public education and destroying it."

"This would be like taking the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and making him the secretary of agriculture overseeing ranching and livestock," he added.

Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that organization does not take positions on individuals who are nominated for jobs, but he said many school board members in Kansas have expressed grave concerns about DeVos.

"We have always had concerns about the role of private schools being publicly supported and what that means, the issue of charter schools, so we have concerns about her policies," Tallman said.

Both Desetti and Tallman said the mere fact that DeVos has promised not to "mandate" charter schools — privately operated schools that receive public funding — does not mean that she won't pursue policies that could pressure states into accepting them.

"One of the things that has been talked about, though, is federal programs that would either encourage or reward if you did, or penalize if you didn't," Tallman said."You don't have to do these types of programs, but you're not going to get any federal money if you don't. That's another area of concern."

Likewise, the Kansas PTA does not take positions on nominations, but it posted a statement on its website urging PTA members to share the group's policy positions on key issues, including: "The PTA opposes any private school choice system — vouchers, tax credits or deductions — that would divert public school resources."

The Senate is scheduled to take a cloture vote Friday to end a Democratic filibuster of her confirmation. A final vote is expected Monday.

So far, two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have said they will oppose DeVos' confirmation. If all Democrats and independents vote no as well, that would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate, leaving Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote.

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Kansas officials weigh in on Gorsuch nomination to Supreme Court

A number of Kansas public officials and advocacy groups weighed in Wednesday on President Donald Trump's nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. And as one might expect, their reactions fell along partisan and ideological lines.

"Judge Gorsuch is a mainstream, respected judge who has served on the bench next door in Colorado for a decade," said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who will vote on Gorsuch's confirmation. “It is important for Kansans to know that he is a strict Constitutionalist and will not legislate from the bench. We have seen too many critical rulings of late that have ignored the separation of powers and have turned our courts into a super-legislature. Judge Gorsuch will not contribute to this disturbing trend."

Kansas Democrats, on the other hand, were not so complimentary.

“The Kansas Democratic Party hopes to see the same consideration for Mr. Gorsuch as the Republicans in the Senate have given to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, the Honorable Merrick Garland," said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "Those Republicans entirely ignored the nomination, openly refusing to give Mr. Garland even a hearing, let alone a vote. It would be hypocrisy on the side of the Senate Republicans to demand Senate Democrats vote for confirmation in a quick and quiet manner."

Gorsuch, a native of Colorado who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, was named to the 10th Circuit appellate bench by President George W. Bush in 2006.

Judge Neil Gorsuch speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, after President Donald Trump announced Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Judge Neil Gorsuch speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, after President Donald Trump announced Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

One significant case from Kansas in which he participated was a school finance case, Patrella v. Brownback, in which a group of parents in the Shawnee Mission school district sued in federal court, claiming the state's cap on the authority of school districts to levy local option budgets violated a number of rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In one of the appeals involved in that case, a three-judge panel that included Gorsuch ruled in 2012 that the parents did have standing to sue. But the case was later dismissed on its merits by another three-judge panel in 2015.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who was the named defendant in that case, issued a statement praising Gorsuch.

"President Trump made good on his most important campaign promise, to fill Justice (Antonin) Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court with someone with impeccable credentials who will defend the Constitution with vigor and integrity," Brownback said. "Judge Gorsuch is an excellent jurist, more than qualified, and has demonstrated great respect for the rule of law."

Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has challenged a number of federal regulations issued during Democrat Barack Obama's administration in cases that have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, also said he has high hopes for Gorsuch.

“We know him as a solid, capable jurist,” Schmidt said. “It will be good for Kansas and the Midwest to have a voice from the central part of the country on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jerry Moran had not issued a public statement. But he posted comments on Twitter calling Gorsuch, "an impressive & well-qualified #SCOTUS nominee who has already received bipartisan support in the Senate."

Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, whose district includes Lawrence, also took to Twitter to comment on Gorsuch, calling him "an ardent defender of the U.S. Constitution and a great legal mind."

Gorsuch also received praise from the Kansas Republican Party and the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, a lobby group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and supports "religious freedom" legislation that allows private businesses and government officials to deny service to certain individuals based on religious faith.

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Jenkins explains timing of retirement announcement

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins on Friday explained the timing of her retirement announcement this week, saying she was under pressure from other Republicans to make a decision so they could get started on their own 2018 campaign plans.

Speaking briefly with reporters at the Statehouse Friday, Jenkins said she was "just getting a lot of pressure to run for governor and I wanted everyone to know with plenty of time to come up with a new candidate."

She did not offer an explanation about why she chose not to run for governor. But she did reiterate her intention to bow out of politics altogether and return to work in the private sector and said she has no plans to run for public office in future elections beyond 2018.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins visits with Statehouse tour guide Larry Wills and enjoys a piece of Kansas Day birthday cake during a visit to the Statehouse. Jenkins announced earlier this week that she is bowing out of political life and will not run for any office in 2018.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins visits with Statehouse tour guide Larry Wills and enjoys a piece of Kansas Day birthday cake during a visit to the Statehouse. Jenkins announced earlier this week that she is bowing out of political life and will not run for any office in 2018. by Peter Hancock

Jenkins was at the Statehouse to attend the traditional Kansas Day festivities. But she appeared to be trying to keep a low profile, sitting in the back of the audience and stepping out to leave before the end of the event. She responded to only a few questions from reporters who caught up with her in the stairwell as she was leaving the building.

Traditionally, the governor also attends Kansas Day events at the Statehouse, but Gov. Sam Brownback was absent this year. His office said he was in Washington, D.C., Friday to join the national anti-abortion rally.

Sunday, Jan. 29, marks the 156th anniversary of the day Kansas was admitted to the union as the 34th state.

Jenkins' announcement on Wednesday stunned many in Kansas politics, in part because it had been widely assumed that she planned to run for governor in 2018. That was suggested last year when she launched a state-based political action committee to help Republican legislative candidates, as well as her decision after the election to step down from her leadership position as vice chair of the House Republican Conference.

House Republicans, however, went through a major upheaval in 2015 when rebellious members of the caucus forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, with whom Jenkins had been a close ally, and replaced him with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

But the timing of her announcement also raised eyebrows because it came so soon after her 2016 re-election and less than two weeks into the new Donald Trump administration. Jenkins has long been a solid supporter of many issues Trump campaigned on, including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and passage of large-scale federal tax reform.

Some have suggested that her early announcement will leave her as a lame duck during her final term in office, but Jenkins said she thinks it will put her in "a great position to get something done."

"I can focus full-time on rolling up my sleeves and getting health care fixed and getting tax reform done, which have jurisdiction in our (Ways and Means) committee," she said.

She also said she thinks it will enhance her power within the House, "because they know that I want to get something done and we just have two years to get it done."

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Former lawmaker Dennis McKinney to announce bid for Congress

Former House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, is planning to throw his hat in the ring for the upcoming special election in the 4th Congressional District. McKinney said he plans to make a formal announcement Wednesday.

The special election is being held to fill the vacancy created when Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, of Wichita, was confirmed as CIA director in the Donald Trump administration.

McKinney served 16 years in the Kansas House, from 1992 through 2008, including the last six years as minority leader. In 2008, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointed him as state treasurer, filling the vacancy created when Lynn Jenkins was elected to the 2nd District congressional seat. He ran for a full term in that office in 2010 but was defeated by Republican Ron Estes.

Estes, of Wichita, is also expected to announce plans to seek the Republican nomination for the 4th District seat.

McKinney is generally seen as a conservative Democrat who as a legislator voted in favor of increased restrictions on abortion procedures. He was also seen as a supporter of increased funding for public education.

The last Democrat to hold the 4th District seat was former Rep. Dan Glickman, who held that seat for nine terms until 1994, when he lost his bid for a 10th term to Republican Todd Tiahrt.

Gov. Sam Brownback has not yet set a date for the special election. Under a new law just enacted to accommodate Pompeo's resignation, he must issue a proclamation within five days of the vacancy announcement calling for a special election to take place at least 75 days, but not more than 90 days, from the date of the proclamation.

Political parties will hold district conventions to select their nominees for the special election. Those conventions must be held at least 15 days, but not more than 25 days, from the date of the proclamation.

Kansas Democratic Party executive director Kerry Gooch said the party has not yet set a tentative date for its convention, but he expected it will be held either the weekend of Feb. 11 or Feb. 18.

The 4th District covers all or part of 16 counties in south-central Kansas, including Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita.

In the 2016 elections, Pompeo won the seat by a 31-point margin over Democrat Daniel Giroux, 61-30 percent. Trump carried the district, 60-33 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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Pompeo confirmation sets up special election in 4th District

The U.S. Senate Monday night confirmed Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, setting up a special election that could turn into the first public referendum on President Donald Trump's new administration.

By most assessments, such a referendum would likely end favorably for whomever the Republican Party nominates, and for Trump himself, who carried the 4th District in the 2016 election, 60-38 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In that same election, Pompeo won a fourth term for his seat by an even wider margin, 61-30 percent over Democrat Daniel B. Giroux.

Pompeo was expected to submit his formal resignation immediately after the confirmation vote. Once Gov. Sam Brownback receives notice of that resignation, he will issue a proclamation declaring a vacancy in the seat and setting a date for a special election.

Kansas legislators rushed in the opening days of the session to push through a bill cleaning up the state's special election statutes, which haven't been invoked since the last congressional vacancy in 1950. The law now reads that the governor has five days from the day the vacancy occurs to issue a proclamation calling for a special election.

That election must be held 75-90 days after the vacancy occurs. Political parties must wait at least 15, but no more than 25 days to hold a convention to select their nominees.

Brownback's office did not issue any statements Monday night about a special election, but it did post a comment on Twitter congratulating Pompeo for his confirmation:

"He's brilliant. He's qualified. He's Kansan. And now he's our new @CIA Director. Congratulations to @RepMikePompeo."

Pompeo's confirmation occurred on the same day the Gallop polling organization released the first public job approval rating for President Trump, showing the nation evenly divided, 45-45 percent, on his performance in office so far.

So the decision for 4th District Republicans may be whether they want to nominate someone who will be close and loyal to the Trump administration, or perhaps someone who promises to be more independent-minded.

The strategy for Democrats, though, will likely be to cast anyone the GOP nominates as a Trump loyalist, hoping to capitalize on his relatively low national approval ratings.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the GOP has tentatively set Thursday, Feb. 9, as the date for its district convention, to be held somewhere in Wichita. That's the day before the state GOP's statewide convention begins. The Kansas Democratic Party did not respond Monday to questions about its nomination plans.

So far, State Treasurer Ron Estes and Alan Cobb, a Trump campaign adviser and former lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, have publicly expressed their interest in the nomination. And former 4th District Rep. Todd Tiahrt is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate.

On the Democratic side, no top-tier politicians have stepped forward to announce plans for the seat, but party insiders have been strongly recruiting former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg to throw his hat in the ring. Current Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, is also mentioned as a possible candidate. Both told the Journal-World recently that they've made no decision about the race.