This Week at the Statehouse
After 12 weeks, we have reached First Adjournment and completed the 2012 regular session. We will now break for a few weeks and return for Veto/Wrap Up Session on April 25th, at which time the Legislature will take up items of unfinished business (there’s a lot of that this year). Throughout the break, the Governor will review the bills that have been sent to his desk for signature or veto.
Mainly, what I have to report this week is that there is not much to report. It is frustrating that we have achieved so little after 12 weeks in Topeka. Every major issue of the legislative session has been pushed to the Veto Session, including the budget, redistricting, tax reform, school finance, KPERS, and KanCare. Also, absolutely no new job-creating proposals have made it to the House Floor. All in all, the priorities of House Leadership have been very disappointing.
The Veto Session is also known as the “Wrap Up” session. The Legislature should not be pushing every major policy reform to the last minute of the session. There is such a logjam that everything is now being used as leverage for something else. That is not the way to implement good public policy.
The Kansas Wheat Festival Bill is on the Governor’s desk. We passed it out on Friday. We hope to have a media event for the bill signing. All legislators have been invited to the festivities and some are coming. I told them we would have Wheat Beer.
Rodger Dwyer was in the Capitol for a Senate Bill last week and we got to visit for a while. He went to part of a meeting with me. It is always good to see folks from home come up. It reminds me that there is a real world out there.
Civics 101: The Omnibus Bill
One of the primary tasks of the Wrap Up Session is to approve the Omnibus Bill. It is called the Omnibus Bill because it includes appropriations for a wide variety of purposes and for every agency requiring further appropriation action for the current or forthcoming fiscal year. The Omnibus Bill normally contains three basic types of items: technical adjustments to previous appropriations bills, financing for Governor’s budget amendments which were not considered as part of regular appropriations bills, and financing of substantive legislation that passed the Legislature earlier in the session.
Additionally, this bill sometimes includes various items of interest to individual legislators that are offered as amendments during either Appropriations/Ways and Means Committees or Committee of the Whole deliberations. The Omnibus Bill also differs from other appropriations bills in that the Omnibus Bill, as introduced, actually is prepared by a legislative committee. Most other Appropriations bills, while nominally authored by the Appropriations/Ways and Means Committees, actually begin as the Governor’s recommendations. The Omnibus Bill is one of the last bills passed each session. This is where the Sumner County Rural Opportunity Zone issue is residing as right now.
Page 2 of 5 - FY 2013 Budget Update
On Friday, we waited about three hours for the conference committee report on the Budget. After the wait, everything blew up and we went home without voting on it. It may not have been such a bad thing because the bill was a temporary “quick” fix to enable the Legislature to adjourn. Almost every significant difference between the House and Senate bills has been postponed until Omnibus. In particular, it does not resolve public education funding or cuts to social services. Public schools and vulnerable citizens should be at the top of the list when we craft the state budget, yet we are treating them as an afterthought. There are many other issues that still need to be resolved. Thankfully, tax collections have come in over estimates several times since last November, plus we’re sitting on a growing ending balance that has now been projected to hit well over $500 million this year. I am grateful that we are emerging from the recession. This growing surplus figure is even more evidence that this is the time to restore some of the painful cuts that some agencies have endured over the last few years.
Last week, the Senate passed a five–year, $3.7 billion tax plan. I was surprised to see the Senate approve such a reckless proposal. If it survives the conference committee process, it will be impossible for the state to adequately fund public education, property tax relief, and other essential state services.
This week, we learned that the plan will have an even more devastating impact than previously thought. According to the non-partisan Kansas Legislative Research Department (KLRD), the average Kansas taxpayer contributes $1,959 in income and sales tax revenue each year. To pay for this plan, the State would need to create 423,175 new, good-paying jobs in 18 months.
It’s highly unreasonable to assume that the state could create nearly a half-million jobs in just over one year. And if sufficient jobs aren’t created, the state would be forced to find money elsewhere to pay for income tax breaks that benefit our wealthiest citizens.
The first priority for tax reform should be strengthening the middle class and ensuring that everyone pays their fair share. That means lowering the state tax burden in a way that is fiscally fair and responsible.
House and Senate legislators have been meeting this week to come to an agreement between the two chambers’ respective tax plans. No compromise has been reached to date, which means this debate will also run into the Veto Session. Politics has taken over this and every other issue. As one of my friends told me when I first went to Topeka six years ago, the issue is not the issue. Your friends are not your friends and your enemies are not your enemies. It is all politics. That sounded stupid at the time but the longer I am in Topeka, the more it makes sense.
Page 3 of 5 - House passes redistricting map that splits Capital city
Last month, the House attempted to split Wyandotte County between the state’s historically-rural 1st Congressional District and the urban 3rd District. That proposal ultimately failed, but this week House members voted 81-43 to split the City of Topeka between the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.
The new congressional map, called “Bob Dole 1” violates the guidelines which committee members unanimously approved at the beginning of the session. It’s irresponsible and short sighted to split a city of the first class, such as Topeka. This is especially true when there were other opportunities on the table that would preserve the core of each district without splitting an urban area.
During 14 public hearings held across the state last year and legislative hearings held this session to discuss congressional proposals, not one person offered support for a proposal such as this one which would shift a major urban center into the rural 1st. In fact a number of people from western Kansas appeared to encourage the Legislature to protect the rural nature of the 1st Congressional District and to avoid moving major urban populations into the 1st. We also heard testimony from the Topeka Chamber of Commerce among others opposing this and similar proposals.
I am hopeful that Senate and House negotiators will be able to come up with a reasonable solution that meets the intent of redistricting without destroying the historic integrity of our capital city. But, yet again, the outcome of this debate is something that will have to wait until the Veto Session. This re-districting has turned into a war between the Senate and the House and between conservatives and moderates. It will not be pretty when we return.
We protected Kansas schools by voting down HCR 5006
We achieved a victory on Wednesday when the House killed an effort to amend the Kansas Constitution to restrict the ability of the Courts to hold legislators accountable for funding our children’s schools. Motivation for the bill was drawn from past Kansas Supreme Court rulings on school-finance lawsuits.
The House Speaker, Senate President, and Governor all supported this proposal. They said the change was necessary to protect Legislators from being forced to increase spending by the Supreme Court. They also stated the amendment would signal to the judiciary that the Supreme Court had no authority to impose financial obligations on the Legislature.
Opponents worried the amendment would take away from the rights of Kansans to seek a court remedy if they feel they had been wronged by the government (which is what happened in the 2005 school finance case). They also stated the amendment would throw off the balance of power between the three branches of government and could possibly undermine the constitutional right of children to receive a suitable education.
Page 4 of 5 - Currently, Kansas is facing lawsuits from four different school districts who argue that recent budget cuts have resulted in inadequate funding. After five rounds of cuts totaling nearly $250 million over three years, that is a hard argument to counter.
The amendment failed 79-44 (it required a ? majority, which is 84 votes). I voted NO. The good part for me was listening to very smart lawyers arguing both sides of the issue. This was an example of opposing sides of an issue making great arguments for and against and I had a front row seat.
House rejects school voucher bill
The House Committee of the Whole rejected House Bill 2767 by a vote of 55-66 on Monday. The bill would have granted a tax credit to individuals who donate money to scholarship funds for certain eligible students to attend a private or parochial school. The scholarships would be limited to those students in designated “at-risk” districts, who are considered low-income, in need of special education, or not sufficiently meeting academic standards.
Proponents argued that the bill was necessary to give parents the opportunity to choose the best option for their children’s education. They also said public schools would save money as students leave the districts for private institutions.
Opponents reminded the body that the public school districts lose state aid for every student who opts to go to a private school, and further drain on the resources of public education is the last thing the Legislature should be encouraging. More importantly, the Legislature has cut nearly $250 million from public education over the last three years. Before we even think about throwing state revenue at a tax credit to benefit private schools, we need to begin restoring some of those cuts.
Federal and State Affairs Discuss Drug Testing for Cash Assistance Recipients
On Tuesday, the Committee worked House Bill 2686, a bill that would require random drug testing of one-third of the public assistance recipient population in Kansas each year. The program would be administered by Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services. If the individual fails the screening, the person would be required to complete a treatment program. Failure to attend such a program would result in immediate termination of assistance. Additionally, if an individual completes the program, but still fails the drug testing three times, their assistance would be revoked.
Proponents of the bill argue that welfare recipients may abuse taxpayer-funded benefits to buy illegal drugs, rather than for the assistance they applied for. They say the bill is an effort to guarantee that the money is used for legal purposes. Additionally, proponents argue that this will help protect children under the care of drug abusers because the state would be better able to identify those individuals.
There is significant opposition to the bill. Opponents pointed out that poor people are not automatically more likely to use drugs simply because they are poor; plenty of wealthy individuals abuse drugs as well. Requiring a drug test simply because an individual needs public assistance (especially when there is no evidence of prior use) is highly discriminatory. Welfare is not the only type of state subsidy (the state does business with a lot of private entities). Additionally, this bill hardly enforces “random” drug testing, as the individuals receive advance notice of the test with an option to delay it.
Page 5 of 5 - Committee members discussed several amendments to House Bill 2686. One amendment would mandate drug screening for all those receiving state funds, including elected officials such as legislators and the Governor. That amendment was rejected by the Committee. Amendments that were accepted by the Committee included placing the cost of the screening on SRS rather on the recipient; eliminating the retroactive application of permanently denying benefits to those convicted of a drug crime; and allowing for a second test at the request of an individual who fails a first screening.
The committee did report the bill out favorably, but it has not made it to the House floor. We could still see it at Omnibus. I could vote for this if every Legislator had to submit to the same test. We will see how it goes.
House passes bill giving preference to grandparents seeking custody
The House last Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would give preferential treatment to grandparents seeking custody in cases involving abused children. Senate Bill 262 states that grandparents “shall receive preference” from Social and Rehabilitative Services when an abused child has been removed from a home and is not being placed with another parent.
In the case that the courts still do not grant custody to the grandparent(s) who requested custody, the secretary of the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services would be required to file a report detailing why the grandparent was denied custody.
Proponents of the bill point out that the state will save money by placing the children in the private homes of grandparents, opposed to institutions or foster care, and will help keep families together.
The bill passed favorably from the House and is awaiting consideration from the Senate.
Keep in Touch
It is a special honor to serve as your state representative. I value and need your input on the various issues facing state government. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions. My office address is 7th Floor, DSOB, 915 S. Harrison, Topeka, KS 66612. You can reach me at (785) 296-7651 or call the legislative hotline at 1-800-432-3924 to leave a message for me. Additionally, you can e-mail me at email@example.com. You can also follow the legislative session online at www.kslegislature.org.