TOPEKA — Lawmakers have wrapped up their regular session, but they still haven’t agreed on how to make last year’s big income tax cuts work in the future without painful reductions in state services.
They did send Gov. Sam Brownback bills expanding the range of places licensed Kansans can carry guns, allowing drug tests for welfare and unemployment recipients suspected of drug use, defining human life as beginning at fertilization, changing how appellate judges are appointed, deregulating big phone companies and letting Kansans legally wield switchblades.
“We didn’t shy away from controversial subjects,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.
Meanwhile, attempts to let grocery stores sell strong beer and wine, crack down on illegal immigration and restrict collective bargaining among teachers appear likely to drift for another year.
Legislators saved big questions about state tax code and spending for a wrap-up session due to start May 8.
That leaves lawmakers a lot to think about over their recess, most notably whether to extend a six-tenths of a cent sales tax hike due to expire in July. It would help them make up for a gaping budget hole in a few years. But it could be politically painful; many see it as a tax increase or a broken promise.
Both tax bills could push budget problems caused by income tax cuts further down the road and reduce the state’s ending balances.
“We would rather keep a more friendly business environment than keep that ending balance,” said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson.
Here’s a look at where issues stand.
Lawmakers are deadlocked over whether to indefinitely extend the six-tenths of a cent sales tax set to expire in July. The extension is viewed by Brownback and many in the Senate as key to avoiding extreme cuts in state services after massive income tax cuts signed into law last year.
The governor’s proposal to zap the mortgage tax deduction to help bring in more state revenue has been ditched in favor of phasing down the value of all tax deductions.
The Senate plan would cut income tax rates more over the next few years, and then more whenever the state’s revenue grows more than 4 percent. The House views the sales tax extension as politically toxic; its proposal does not call for immediate additional tax cuts but instead favors modest income tax reductions triggered when state revenues grow by more than 2 percent year to year.
Meanwhile, a bill to phase down boat taxes is on its way to Brownback’s desk; an attempt to eliminate property taxes for private health clubs passed the Senate but appears unlikely to gain traction in the House; and a push to lower property taxes on new cars is in the same position. A plan to shift money from the state’s earned income tax credit, which benefits working poor families, to homestead property tax rebates for low-income homeowners appears stalled after passing the Senate.
Budget issues remain in flux Lawmakers may avoid cutting spending for colleges and universities by 2 percent to 4 percent, which universities warned could trigger another round of tuition increases. They are discussing a deal to replace that cut with money intended for transportation improvements. After initially eliminating subsidies for low-cost airlines in 2015, budget negotiators agreed to continue $5 million payments that could now flow, in part, to Southwest Airlines flying out of Wichita.
Lawmakers are still considering cutting $2 million of the $5 million usually given to the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita. And budget negotiators are trying to figure out if Sedgwick County’s Judge Riddel’s Boys Ranch will close, as the county has said, if it doesn’t get a $750,000 influx of state money and a waiver from the state to let it reduce staffing levels. .
Sent to governor
Legislation to require drug tests of welfare and unemployment recipients suspected of illegal drug use got strong support from lawmakers. Those who fail lose benefits until they finish treatment and job skills training. Those convicted of drug felonies can’t get welfare for five years. A second conviction results in a lifetime ban.
Lawmakers generally agree with Brownback’s push to improve reading, but his proposal to hold back third-graders who can’t pass reading tests failed. Teachers groups and other advocates said it could cause problems and that such efforts must start at a younger age. A revived version of the plan allows parents and school officials to decide whether to hold back first-graders who have reading problems. Another bill headed to Brownback’s desk lets 10 percent of the state’s schools try out innovative teaching efforts with less state regulation.
Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt strongly backed a bill that would create a victims’ assistance fund and tough new penalties for selling kids into prostitution. The bill, which draws on methods used in Wichita, passed the Senate 38-0 and the House 120-0.
A bill written by AT&T relieves the company and some others from having to comply with minimum quality of service standards. The bill allows telecomm companies to shut down wireline service to difficult-to-serve rural customers and to opt out of serving poor customers receiving Lifeline subsidies. It also pares back the authority of the Kansas Corporation Commission to regulate fraud and other abusive practices.
A bill would legalize switchblade knives and stilettos, which were outlawed decades ago after gaining a reputation as a preferred weapon for gangs and street mayhem.
After ensuring no toll money would be spent on roads outside of the Kansas Turnpike, lawmakers agreed to a deal allowing Brownback’s appointed secretary from the Kansas Department of Transportation to oversee most day-to-day activities of the Turnpike. Many lawmakers remain uncomfortable with the shift and are wary it could cause problems for the otherwise effective KTA. But Brownback’s administration and many Republicans say the move will save money as the two agencies partner on more purchases and operations.
Brownback used his first signature of the year to approve a bill that will let the governor pick judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Brownback’s administration and some conservative Republicans had hoped to pass a bill to let voters consider a constitutional amendment to provide the same selection process for state Supreme Court judges. But the idea failed to gain traction.
A new law eliminates the statute of limitations for rape and criminal sodomy and extends the statute for sexually violent crimes until 10 years after child victims turn 18.
Public unions will no longer be allowed to deduct money for political activity from the checks of workers who voluntarily allow such deductions. Supporters said they wanted the government out of the process of the deductions. Teachers unions saw the bill as the opening blow of a wider attempt to weaken unions. A bill that would have limited teacher union bargaining provoked an intense battle, but lawmakers agreed to let that idea fade, at least this year.
A bill to require that developmentally disabled people get their case management from one provider and their actual services from another was quietly pushed aside after causing an uproar in the disability community. Advocates said they feared it would disrupt the lives of mentally fragile individuals.
Senators turned aside a proposal that would have banned slot machines at race tracks until 2032. The move leaves open the possibility of a revote on adding slots and reopening Wichita Greyhound Park, which has been closed since 2007.
With federal lawmakers working on national immigration reform, the issue mostly took a back seat in Kansas. College students who immigrated illegally packed an emotional hearing during an unsuccessful attempt to repeal in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants who attended Kansas high schools for three years and graduated.
Other proposals aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration got little more than courtesy discussion, although some lawmakers may look for ways to bring the issue back up in the session’s fast-moving final days.
A bill to allow medical marijuana in Kansas didn’t get a hearing in Topeka, despite strong support among people who attended a south-central Kansas legislative forum.
Brownback hasn’t decided whether to expand Medicaid. The Senate has said any expansion must be approved by the Legislature. Some leaders say they want to leave the door open to expansion, thereby insuring thousands more Kansans who otherwise might wait until minor illnesses force them into emergency rooms, which drives up rates for everyone.
Conservatives say they don’t like expanding the federal program. But many hospitals are quietly advocating for expansion.
Budget negotiators are trying to maintain at least the state’s share of money to help fund safety net clinics. The issue probably won’t be decided during this year’s session.
A bipartisan group of Sedgwick County lawmakers sought to pass property tax relief for disaster victims, after local homeowners were charged a full year of taxes on homes destroyed in an April 2012 tornado. Lawmakers may revisit the issue when they return in May.