Kansans voted in more conservative Republican lawmakers in November. Now, as lawmakers convene to open the 2013 legislative session, it’s time to see how they will reshape the state.
Backed by conservative majorities in the House and Senate, Gov. Sam Brownback has laid the groundwork for potentially big cuts in state spending. And he has signaled that he may try to dial down income tax rates even more than the historic reductions approved during a frantic and divisive legislative session last year.
Those tax cuts – and the big budget problems they create – promise to overshadow most of the debates over spending and policy in Topeka this year. Meanwhile, everyone is still trying to figure out how a new court ruling that deems state education funding unconstitutionally low could further complicate things.
Lawmakers are also sure to get caught up in a wide-ranging set of other issues.
More guns in more places? Drug testing for welfare, or medical marijuana for health care? Ban smoking in casinos or snuff out the whole statewide smoking ban approved a few years ago?
Do we need a state dog? Do those dogs need to be protected by putting an unsavory additive in antifreeze? Do Kansans need protection from the fluoride pretty much everyone else is drinking? Speaking of water, is there going to be enough to go around in 50 years?
Questions big, small and perhaps even trivial. It’s time for the folks Kansans elected to decide. It promises, yet again, to be a wild ride.
Here are some big issues lawmakers and lobbyists say are likely to emerge:
Debates over school spending and tax code promise to dominate budget discussions. Brownback plans to unveil a two-year budget this week that pledges to give school districts more predictability, although it’s unclear how the court’s school finance law may change that. Conservatives hope to cut government spending, which may be inevitable with new tax cuts. That could stir new debates about special projects in Wichita, such as funding for the city’s aquifer recharge project, and elsewhere in the state.
Brownback’s administration has signaled it may try to continue a .06 percent sales tax set to expire in July and zap some tax credits and deductions to mitigate budget problems caused by the income tax cuts signed into law in 2012. A proposal could come with a promise to further reduce income taxes, but Democrats say that could make a bad budget situation worse.
Democrats, meanwhile, plan to push once again for the state to channel money to local governments to hold down property tax rates, a move that Republicans sidelined last year.
Brownback has been pitching a new way to look at state school spending that lumps pension payments to retired teachers and new building spending in with classroom spending to reflect the overall cost of education. Conservatives say that would show the true cost of schools. Moderates and liberals say that’s a false viewpoint because money going to retirees doesn’t have a direct impact on kids in schools today.
Three district judges ruled Friday that Kansas education funding is unconstitutionally low, but it’s unclear how that will affect the debate. The state is appealing the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Lawmakers are also poised to debate plans that would send taxpayer dollars to parents in low-income or low-performance school districts to help defray the cost of sending their kids to private schools. And some speculate conservatives will also seek to eliminate collective bargaining that teachers unions use when negotiating new contracts for pay and benefits.
Although abortions are already heavily restricted, anti-abortion advocates may seek further limits on the ability of clinics to operate in the state. Also likely to be introduced is a bill that would prevent abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Lawmakers again will consider a proposal to allow the sale of full-strength beer and liquor in convenience stores and grocery stores. Liquor store owners fear such a measure would force them out of business and say it would result in less control over alcohol sales. Supporters say the existing law allowing convenience stores and grocery stores to sell only 3.2 beer and wine coolers is antiquated and restricts the free market.
Conservatives want to test some portion of people who get welfare or unemployment benefits. Those who fail would lose their benefits until they have completed drug treatment and job skills training. Democrats say it’s unfair to only test the poor when others also get state money, but they’ve signaled they’re willing to talk about ways to get more people into treatment.
Wichita activists who beat back an effort to fluoridate the city’s water are planning to push for a law making it more difficult for other cities to add the cavity-fighting chemical to public water supplies.
After falling short in 2012, conservative lawmakers are poised to again debate, and potentially pass, a law allowing people with concealed carry licenses to have weapons on college campuses, which university police departments have opposed.
Meanwhile, Wichita seeks to change state law to allow local control of the open carry of guns. In July, the Wichita City Council passed, largely unwillingly, a resolution to allow open carry after a Kansas attorney general’s opinion favoring open carry made the city appear vulnerable in court.
Several bills are expected, including an Arizona-style bill to require police to check the citizenship of people they come in contact with if they suspect they are here illegally; a bill to require state government and possibly private businesses to vet employees for citizenship through a database; a bill that would prohibit any public benefit to people who are here illegally; and a bill to repeal the state law allowing undocumented graduates of Kansas high schools to pay in-state tuition at state universities.
Conservatives want to have the governor appoint and Senate confirm judges for the Kansas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. That would require a two-thirds vote by the House and Senate, followed by a public vote. Meanwhile, the Kansas Bar Association suggests changing how people are appointed to the existing judicial selection committee that forwards three judicial candidates to the governor for appointment.
The state’s newly privatized Medicaid system went live at the start of the year, and lawmakers plan to create oversight groups to ensure it is working properly. Lawmakers last year delayed inclusion of people with developmental disabilities until 2014, and they may again debate whether that population should join the system.
A bill that would ban unions from automatically deducting political contributions from union members’ paychecks failed to advance last year. The idea is expected to have more support this year, but it’s unclear whether it would affect members of all unions or only teachers and state employees.
After last year’s messy debate that federal judges had to settle, lawmakers may again tinker with the boundaries of their political districts. But the conservative Republican-dominated House and Senate will likely only be allowed to tweak things without igniting another lawsuit.
Lawmakers are poised to debate a proposal to shift local elections from springtime to November in an effort to increase turnout. Democrats say Kansas has enough partisan politics and that having nonpartisan city elections in November would politicize those offices. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Kris Kobach plans to press lawmakers for the power to prosecute election crimes. He contends county prosecutors are too busy with serious violent crimes to give proper attention to election fraud allegations.
Contributing: Dion Lefler, Fred Mann and Bill Wilson of The Eagle