Kansas lawmakers adjourn session notable for battles with Brownback
July ruling on schools may force special session
Topeka ? Kansas lawmakers on Monday formally ended a historic legislative session in which they reversed course on Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax policies, nearly reversed many of his other conservative policies, and enacted a new school finance formula that will put hundreds of millions of new dollars into the state’s public schools over the next two years.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the Kansas Supreme Court will accept that new school funding plan or reject it as unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers back for another special session this summer.
Still, the 2017 session will doubtless be remembered as the one during which the state of Kansas lurched back from the hard-line conservative policies that the Brownback administration had driven the previous six years and set itself on a more traditional, centrist political path.
“We did a lot of heavy lifting this session,” House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said at the end of the day. “It took us a long time, but this session was unique, given the challenges we were facing and the decisions that had to be made.”
“We knew when we signed up to be representatives that we had a lot of challenges ahead of us, and opportunities,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, who just completed his first session as speaker. “I was very pleased with the work of the members of the House this year, the many areas we led and a lot of the effort. The debate that took place on the House floor was respectful and meaningful. We didn’t always agree, but I think everybody was heard. But we have a school finance formula that puts students first, that’s sustainable, and we have books that are balanced.”
Lawmakers came into the session in January facing a budget shortfall of roughly $1 billion over the next two years, a shortfall that many believed was caused by the sweeping tax cuts that Brownback had championed in 2012. During the general election that took place in November, Kansas voters ousted many of the conservatives who had supported those tax cuts, replacing them with Democrats or more moderate Republicans.
That election set up a series of intense battles with the governor and his allies on a wide range of issues. Besides the tax plan and school finance, the new group of Democrats and moderate Republicans also passed a bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, although they came up just short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Brownback’s veto of that bill.
They also reversed a significant portion of a controversial 2013 gun law that would have required, starting July 1, state and municipal hospitals and other health care facilities to allow people to carry concealed firearms in those buildings.
But they were unable to roll back another provision of that gun law which will require public colleges and universities to allow concealed carry on their campuses.
“As a whole, I would give it a B or a B-plus, but it certainly changed the entire direction we’re going to be on moving forward,” House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said after Monday’s session.
“The No. 1 disappointment was the failure to expand Medicaid,” he said. “We had 81 (votes in the House) and 25 (in the Senate). We were five votes short of providing health care to 150,000 Kansans and economic stability to our health system. The second biggest disappointment was we were not able to discuss, let alone vote on, gun safety on college campuses.”
Still, without question, the most significant event of the session was the reversal of Brownback’s tax policies, which actually involved passage of two bills. The first bill passed in February and was immediately vetoed. The House voted to override that veto, but the Senate came up three votes short. The second bill passed both chambers on June 5 and was also immediately vetoed, but that time the override vote carried in both chambers when most Republican leaders who had been loyal to Brownback joined in the effort.
“I would say that was the hardest vote that I’ve cast in my time here in Topeka,” Ryckman said of the override vote. “We worked all session to find a way to balance our books. We had plans that we were pushing that didn’t go quite as far. The House knew we needed to govern, and we have a chance next year to again look at our tax policy and do what’s right for our citizens.”
In a statement released after lawmakers adjourned, Brownback made it clear he was not pleased with how the session went.
“This legislative session made history, but for all the wrong reasons,” he said in a written statement. “Passing the largest tax hike in state history, this legislature passed the biggest budget in state history — and they’ve already spent every dime.”
“The legislature — despite borrowing and delaying payments — chose to spend over $200 million in new spending on top of increased funding for schools,” his statement continued. “This budget pays for a legislative wish list on the backs of working Kansans.
“This session marks a drastic departure from fiscal restraint. I trust that future legislatures will return to a pro-growth orientation that will once again set Kansas on the path toward becoming the best state in America to raise a family and grow a business,” he concluded.
The final “sine die” session began with the swearing in of a new member, Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, who was named to replace the late Rep. Patsy Terrell who died unexpectedly June 7 during the final days of the wrap-up session. Also, Lawrence Rep. John Wilson, a Democrat, surprised his colleagues by announcing that he will soon step down from the Legislature so he can spend more time focusing on his family and career.
In addition, there almost was another attempt to override one of Brownback’s final vetoes of the year, a line-item veto of a budget proviso that would have prohibited the administration from making major changes without legislative approval in Medicaid-funded home and community based services, commonly known as HCBS waivers.
Ward had said before Monday’s session that he planned to offer a motion to override that veto. But by the time the House got to that order of business, the Senate had already adjourned, making any vote in the House pointless.
“I would make the motion to override the governor’s veto but our friends in the Senate had other engagements, and standing up for disabled and mentally ill Kansans wasn’t on their agenda today and they’ve gone home,” Ward said. “So it would be an exercise in futility, but it would be the right thing to do.”
In his veto message, Brownback said he had no intention of making major changes in the HCBS waiver programs without legislative approval, but he said the language in the budget proviso was overly broad and could have prevented the administration from making changes to other, non-HCBS programs and services.
Lawmakers now await a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court on whether the new school funding package meets constitutional muster.
The bill adds nearly $195 million in new funding for the upcoming school year, and then another $98 million on top of that the following year. But plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit, as well as many other public school advocates, have said they believe that is far short of what schools actually need.
If the court strikes down that funding as inadequate, it also could issue an order effectively shutting down the Kansas public school system mid-summer, forcing lawmakers back for a special session so schools could open on schedule in August.
The court has scheduled a hearing and oral arguments for Tuesday, July 18, to review the new funding plan. A ruling from the court is expected soon after that.