TOPEKA — The Legislature spent most of its regular session passing relatively minor bills while shoving major issues back and forth without definitive action.
Now lawmakers have no choice but to complete redistricting maps and the state budget, and they’ll feel significant pressure to do something meaningful to the tax code, school finance, state employee pensions and Medicaid reform.
“We really don’t have much to show for ourselves in the regular session,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “We’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do now in the wrap-up session. And when you look at the agenda that’s in front of us, it’s pretty daunting.”
Republican infighting over new boundaries for Senate districts promises to overshadow the beginning of the wrap-up session, which starts today.
Those maps are at the heart of a fierce battle between Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative Republican factions and moderate senators who have greeted many of Brownback’s top priorities with skepticism and, occasionally, disdain.
Some lawmakers are confident the Senate will approve a map that excludes several conservative Republican candidates from districts held by incumbent moderate Republican senators, including Jean Schodorf and Carolyn McGinn in the Wichita area.
Meanwhile, state revenues have exceeded projections, giving lawmakers about $500 million more to spend – or save. But that comes amid a Department of Justice investigation of the state’s growing list of people with disabilities waiting for state services and widespread calls for the state to restore some of the funding that has been cut from K-12 education over the past five years.
Republican leaders in the House refused to sign a budget deal with the Senate before the regular session ended, and many expect budget battles to continue to instigate political spats.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, said he expects conservative Republicans in the House to try to take advantage of the hectic pace and try to cram bills through the Senate that weren’t considered during the regular session.
“We’ll have to stand firm or decide that they’re not as important as they were earlier in the session,” he said.
With all that brewing, negotiators from the House and Senate plan to hash out differences on how to reduce state income taxes without deflating important state services – a top Brownback priority. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans and Democrats will push for the property tax relief they believe most Kansans would prefer.
“We hear across the whole state people dislike property tax,” said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.
Brownback, meanwhile, remains committed to seeing income tax cuts passed this session as a means of creating jobs and reviving an economy that has a 6.2 percent unemployment rate.
“We need to get to a pro-growth tax position. We’ve got the proposal there. It’s queued up. It’s paid for,” he said. “We need to do it, and then we need to get a budget through that takes care of the needs of the state.”
With Brownback’s school finance plan cast aside, Senate leaders say they hope to increase school funding. But any increase is likely to face resistance in the House.
Meanwhile, a school finance lawsuit is slated to go to trial in June. That has the potential to force lawmakers to spend more on education.
Morris said lawmakers could stick with the status quo on state employee pensions. But many lawmakers hope to see meaningful changes to begin offsetting the $2.8 billion gap between what the state will owe to retired workers and what is projected to come in through investments and contributions.
The pile-up of major issues – as well as others likely to crop up, such as abortion, immigration and proof of citizenship for new voters – has many lawmakers guessing that the session could run beyond its allotted 90 days.
“We have a tendency to sort of procrastinate until we run out of days – the 90-day limit,” House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said. “And I hope that’s not the case.”
Contributing: Associated Press