Kansas Legislature hits midpoint of session; a look at what’s moving and what’s stalled

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

Topeka — Kansas lawmakers passed an important milestone this week: the midpoint deadline called “turnaround.”

In simple terms, it means most bills must have passed one chamber or they’re pretty much dead for the year — though are there are ways around the rules for things legislators really want to pursue (and bills from some committees are exempt).

Here are a few of the dozens of bills that are moving on to the House or the Senate, and a few that reached the end of the line, at least for now.

What’s moving forward

• Sports gambling: State-owned casinos would be the only physical place to bet on pro sports, though you could also use an app that’s run by the companies that operate those casinos.

But the debate in the Senate showed the divisive nature of the issue, as Democrats said the bill gives too much control to the casino companies and doesn’t produce enough revenue for the state.

The bill, which is now in the House’s hands, is estimated to produce around $2 or $3 million per year for the state coffers.

Other lawmakers tried to amend the plan to incentivize horse and dog racing, but those amendments failed.

The measure also allows the state to sell lottery tickets online, which is expected to produce more than $3 million in additional state revenue over the first five years.

• Property tax changes: Lawmakers who are frustrated by property tax increases want to let the public have a bigger voice in local tax rates.

Senators voted to require cities and counties to send notices to residents when property tax revenue would go up, as well as hold public hearings. They hope the change will create more communication between the public and the local officials who set property tax rates.

“Just explain to them why the increase is coming,” Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson said. “There’s going to be some pushback sometimes.”

The bill also repeals a 2015 cap on property tax increases by local governments. Supporters hoped it would limit rate increases but some legislators now say it didn’t work.

• Suspended driver’s licenses: One in 10 Kansas driver’s licenses are suspended. The House and Senate this week approved separate plans to get thousands of those people back on the road.

People with suspended licenses have to settle fines and court fees in order to get their driving privileges restored; that’s the reason for many of the more than 200,000 suspended licenses.

The intent is to make it cheaper and easier to get a restricted license, so people could continue driving legally to work or school instead of losing their jobs or getting more charges and fines heaped on.

What didn’t make the cut (or could be revived)

• Reduced marijuana penalties: A person’s first and second marijuana possession charges are misdemeanors in Kansas, but any more and it’s a felony.

A Kansas House committee considered making all convictions misdemeanors, but there were questions about whether the changes would lead to lawsuits over past convictions.

Some lawmakers also opposed it because they worried lowering penalties might be a path to legalizing cannabis, like neighboring Colorado has done.

Some communities in Kansas have already decriminalized marijuana possession, meaning a first offense would often be a small fine.

• Refinancing KPERS debt: The Kansas House roundly rejected Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to refinance the state’s pension debt by stripping her idea out of a bill.

Kelly wanted to add 10 years to pay off a $9 billion long-term shortfall in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. The state’s payments are set to balloon in the coming years and the delay would give the state smaller, more affordable payments.

But the longer payoff schedule would mean $4 billion in extra costs, and that’s one of the reasons lawmakers rejected it.

However, House members from both parties said the state will likely need to reamortize the debt when the payments start to grow. They want to consider that later, and continue paying down the debt until then.

• Medicaid expansion: This one’s surely not over yet, as expanding the health care program is the top priority of the governor and many lawmakers.

Expansion is opposed by some Republican leaders, who have now bottled up a bipartisan compromise as they pursue a constitutional amendment on abortion.

The agreement reached between the governor and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning would cover an estimated 130,000 more low-income Kansans.

Frustration over the delay led Democratic Rep. Jim Ward to attempt to offer the compromise as an amendment during a debate this week, but House rules blocked that.

“Be on notice,” Ward said Tuesday. “If there’s a bill that I can attach Medicaid expansion to, I’m going to do it.”

— The Kansas News Service, ksnewsservice.org, is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio.


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