Democratic leader calls for ending ‘circus’ of a legislative session 20 days early

02/21/2014 10:10 AM

02/21/2014 10:35 AM

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, the likely Democratic candidate for governor, said Friday the Legislature should end its session 20 days early after becoming an embarrassment for the state in the wake of bills that have attracted unflattering national attention.

“The session has devolved into a circus that is just bringing a lot of embarrassment in the state,” he said.

Republicans dismissed Davis’ call as a campaign stunt and said the Legislature still has important work to do. House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, sought to turn attention to a number of bills he said would stimulate economic growth.

Davis, D-Lawrence, said Gov. Sam Brownback and House Republicans have failed to set an agenda that deals with the economy, education and other issues that Kansans want lawmakers to address.

“The governor, it’s his job to set the agenda. This is a Legislature that he has an enormous amount of influence over. He handpicked many members of the Legislature,” he said.

Sara Belfry, the governor’s spokeswoman, pushed back against Davis’s claims that Brownback has failed to set a legislative agenda or communicate with legislative leaders.

“Governor Brownback clearly laid his agenda out during the State of the State speech. He has called for funding all day kindergarten, he has asked for higher education budget cuts to be restored, and has proposed a pay increase for classified state employees,” Belfry said in an e-mailed statement.

“It is unfortunate the minority leader of the House of Representatives does not believe these are important enough to address. The Legislature is in the process of working through these issues ...” the statement said.

Merrick, R-Stilwell, dismissed Davis’ plan to cut the session short as “an easy out.”

“We have work to do. The public sent us here to do a job and that job’s not done yet,” Merrick said. “We’ll decide when it’s time to leave Topeka. That’s very commendable to say, you know, let’s shut it down 20 days early. But if the work’s not done, that’s not good for the public either.”

Davis said capping the session at 70 days instead of 90 would save the state $1.3 million. The Legislature went nine days over its 90-day schedule last year.

He pointed to House Bill 2453, the controversial religious freedom bill that many said was an attempt to legalize anti-gay discrimination, as the most blatant example of the Legislature’s skewed priorities. The bill, which was killed by Senate leadership after passing the House, would have allowed public and private employees to refuse service to people based on religious beliefs about marriage.

He also included a bill from Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, that would have made it legal to spank children to the point of bruising as an example of the Legislature’s lack of focus of this year.

Both bills were skewered Thursday night on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in a segment titled “The States: Meth Labs of Democracy.”

Stewart called HB 2453 “the no cake for gays bill.”

Davis brushed off criticism from Equality Kansas that he should have taken a stronger stance against HB 2453 during floor debates. He said he had been upfront about his opposition.

Merrick said he could not prevent House members from introducing bills. Davis contended that the speaker and committee chairs could, however, decide which bills receive hearings and make it to the House floor.

Other Republicans dismissed Davis’ comments as campaign theatrics.

“He’s running for the governor’s seat, and that’s what he’s talking about there,” said Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the reality of what we’re doing in the Legislature.”

Davis and Brownback were essentially even in a poll released Friday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm. Davis led Brownback 42 to 40 percent among voters; the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points in statewide races.

“I don’t think this session has been anywhere near a circus. I think it’s been productive,” Kahrs said. “There’s always controversy around certain bills, that’s the nature of legislation.”

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chairman of the committee that initially passed the religious-freedom bill, was blunt when asked to respond to Davis.

“Blah, blah, blah,” Brunk said. He said the Legislature would end its session when it had concluded its business, and argued that legislators were working hard to make decisions on how to reduce taxes and spend money more efficiently.

“I just don’t know what Paul’s talking about, which is not unusual,” Brunk said.

Craig Gabel, president of Kansans For Liberty, a conservative activist group, was at the Capitol on Friday. He questioned whether Davis was truly concerned about saving taxpayers’ money.

“Twenty days early is 20 days less to further the conservative movement,” Gabel said.

Senate President Susan Wagle also questioned Davis’ motivations.

“The Minority Leader is a veteran politician who knows he has a lot of ground to make up on the campaign trail. He wants to shut this down so he can get on the road and raise money,” Wagle said in an e-mail.

But Democrats defended the seriousness of Davis’s proposal to shut the Legislature’s doors early.

“The simple fact of the matter is that unfortunately very little of substance has been accomplished this session,” Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Davis has plenty of time to campaign. He said that both chambers have focused the bulk of their time on issues of little value to ordinary Kansans.

Davis has repeatedly said that the Legislature should focus on job growth. Asked how he would do that, he pointed to a proposal introduced this year that would require Kansas to grant state contracts only to companies with 70 percent or more of employees living in Kansas.

“I think that’s a great way to use taxpayer dollars to be put right back into the Kansas economy,” Davis said.

Mike O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and former speaker of the House, questioned the wisdom of such a plan. He said it would slow the completion of public projects and said out-of-state workers still put money into the Kansas economy.

“To say that you can’t hire quality labor because they live on the east side of the state line doesn’t make a lot of sense,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal, who publicly opposed HB 2453, said that Republican leaders are still doing a lot of work to improve the state’s business climate.

Merrick and Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, chair of the House Commerce Committee, held a news conference in the speaker’s office shortly after Davis released his proposal. They said the House has been working on a number of bills that will stimulate economic growth but have received little media coverage.

“Our focus is really getting back to basics on making this the most business-friendly state in the country and emphasizing that the rest of the session,” Merrick said.

Kleeb rattled off a list of legislation in the works: a bill that would allow small businesses to form health care associations, economic development proposals, unemployment tax reforms and legislation that would lift taxes on commercial machinery.

All of these proposed reforms would boost job growth, Kleeb said.

“We need to do all we can to not take our eye off the ball of creating jobs in this state,” he said.

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