No matter what happens in the November general election, Republican primary voters last week guaranteed there will be big changes when the Legislature returns to Topeka in January — changes that could range from how the state picks judges to how your children are educated, to how close you can sit to a stripper.
Conservative Republicans swept the moderate wing of their party out of practically any role in state government in their primary. And barring a spectacular comeback by Democrats, who currently hold just eight of 40 Senate seats, conservatives will have free rein to enact a lot of legislation that the conservative House passed and the moderate Senate blocked in the past several years.
Two individuals uniquely positioned to know the backlog of conservative legislative ideas are House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, and House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe. After two terms as House leader, O’Neal is retiring from the Legislature, leaving Siegfreid to carry the conservative banner in the next session.
Siegfreid said he expects a more austere approach to government and closer cooperation between lawmakers and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, especially on KanCare, Brownback’s signature effort to contain Medicaid costs and shift state-provided health care for the poor and disabled to private managed-care plans.
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In Tuesday’s primary, Republican voters replaced 10 of their Senate incumbents — a fourth of the Senate — with candidates more conservative and more closely aligned with Brownback’s policies.
Siegfreid said one of the most important differences at the Statehouse will be a change in tone.
“One of the big things that’s going to change is the leadership of the House and the leadership of the Senate are going to sit down and work and discuss (issues) face to face,” Siegfreid said. “That has not happened in several years because of the breakdown between the House and the Senate. I think the communication will improve greatly, and I think it will greatly help the people of Kansas.”
Hope for Democrats?
In this year’s session, legislators passed the largest tax cut in Kansas history, a bill that exempted taxes on business income from farms, sole proprietorships, limited liability companies and corporations organized under Subchapter S of the federal tax code. The tax plan is forecast to substantially reduce government revenue, a loss that conservatives expect to eventually make up through a combination of budget cuts and increased business activity spurred by the tax cuts.
“With the tax cuts we made (this) year, in order for those to work we’re going to have to have a very efficient budget for several years here,” Siegfreid said. “Those kinds of issues are probably going to have to be dealt with some cuts but they’re mostly going to be, I think, job cuts, not service cuts.”
Not so fast, says Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita. There’s still a general election to come, and Ward said the bruising Republican primary offers Democrats a chance to recover strength they lost in a blowout election in 2010.
Ward said the campaign leading up to Tuesday’s election sent a clear message to moderates “that they’re almost un-American” and unwelcome in the Republican Party.
He said Democrats are hoping those moderate Republicans will take a long look at Democratic candidates rather than “hold their nose and vote for those same people” who have purged the moderate influence from the Republican fold.
Democrats are planning to pound away at a theme that putting the conservatives in full charge of state government will mean “more cuts to schools, longer waiting lists for the most vulnerable Kansans, more raids on the highway fund, rich people being given incredibly generous income tax cuts, no property tax relief, no sales tax relief and a steady diet of social issues,” Ward said.
If GOP conservatives dispatch the Democrats like they did Republican moderates, the following is a look at where O’Neal and Siegfreid say conservatives plan to take the state in the next year.
In the last session, the Legislature went about as far as it could go on regulating abortion without directly conflicting with federal law, according to O’Neal.
Bills could be introduced to try for a “personhood” amendment that would define life as beginning at conception or “heartbeat” legislation to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into a pregnancy. However, O’Neal said he doesn’t think either of those would go far because of disagreement within the anti-abortion movement on them.
Mississippi voters rejected a personhood amendment last year and Colorado voters rejected it in 2008 and 2010, although advocates there have turned in signatures seeking to bring it to the ballot for a third time.
Lawmakers will probably move quickly to change the way the state picks its appeals court judges.
At present, Kansas uses a “merit-based” system in which nominations are made by a commission made up of five lawyers elected by the Kansas Bar Association and four members appointed by the governor. The commission forwards three nominees to the governor, who makes the final selection.
The House passed a bill last year to allow the governor to appoint appeals court judges with Senate confirmation, but the bill was blocked by moderates in the Senate.
Some lawmakers say the current system results in judges that are too liberal and activist, and they have been stung by court decisions, including one by the state Supreme Court that resulted in the Legislature increasing school funding in 2005.
Lawmakers and the governor can change the appeals court judicial selection process on their own, but would need to go to voters to change the process of selecting Supreme Court justices because it is written into the state constitution.
Siegfreid said he doesn’t expect the Legislature to do much with taxes next year after passing a landmark tax bill this year exempting many types of businesses from state income taxes.
Although this year’s tax bill wasn’t exactly what either the House or the governor wanted, both Siegfreid and O’Neal predicted that lawmakers will want to give the new system some time to work. Any changes will probably be technical in nature if the Department of Revenue needs to tweak something in implementation.
There probably will be a move to overhaul a law passed in 2010 that banned indoor smoking in most public places.
The notable exception to the ban has been casinos, including the Kansas Star near Mulvane, that are owned by the state lottery. O’Neal said that’s been an equity issue since the bill passed because it treats the state-owned casinos differently from private businesses.
He said lawmakers could take one of two courses, either banning smoking in casinos – which analysts say would cut profits and hence state income – or look at allowing smoking in bars and other businesses that, like casinos, don’t allow minors.
Siegfreid said he expects a revival of the Community Defense Act that would restrict the location, interior design and activities of sexually oriented entertainment businesses throughout the state.
That would include a mandate for an elevated stage and at least six feet of air space between exotic dancers and customers. The House has twice passed the bill but it’s been held up by the Senate.
O’Neal, however, said he thinks pressure for the bill has abated somewhat because it causes internal friction in the conservative movement between social conservatives and anti-regulation libertarian conservatives.
Many of the incoming conservatives used the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to help defeat more moderate senators.
Since the legislative session ended, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the national health plan to be constitutional, so there’s not much state lawmakers can actually do to stop it, O’Neal said. Lawmakers could pass resolutions opposing the plan and encouraging federal lawmakers to repeal it, or put an equally nonbinding state constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to weigh in.
The state could also refuse to set up a health exchange where people could compare and buy insurance policies, although the federal government has indicated it will set up the exchanges in states that don’t do it themselves.
It is practically an article of faith among conservative Republicans that clean air and water regulations as they are now enforced stifle businesses and kill jobs, so it is likely the Legislature will repeal environmental standards beyond what the federal government requires – and probably chafe at the federal regulations.
Siegfreid said lawmakers will work closely with Brownback’s “office of the repealer” to identify regulations to come off the books.
“We cannot continue to put heavy burdens on our businesses and expect them to compete globally,” Siegfreid said. “If we want them to compete globally, we’re going to have to provide them with the lightest regulatory load that we can.”
Siegfreid said he doesn’t expect to see the Legislature go after school funding, and he thinks education may end up with more money than the Senate would have provided if the moderates had stayed in charge.
“We’re not anti-school, we just think that we all need to get together and work to do schools better,” he said. “I think you’re going to see that money tied to public policy, in other words so that we can see outcomes.”
Some of those policies might include a more rigorous program for teacher evaluation and a bigger emphasis on reading in early grades so that more students are capable of reading for information by fourth grade. Siegfreid said the Legislature may also move to give charter schools more independence from local school boards,
Last session, senators blocked a series of proposals from Secretary of Labor Karin Brownlee that aimed to help businesses deal with unemployment and workers’ compensation cases.
Siegfreid said he’s not sure whether the proposals will resurface or whether the Legislature will take a wait-and-see approach and allow the Labor Department to address its issues internally.
But Terry Forsyth, chair of the Working Kansans Alliance, fought those laws and expects them all to re-emerge in the 2013 session. Forsyth expects to see a bill to replace the existing committee that nominates administrative law judges — who rule on workers’ compensation appeals — with a panel dominated by business interests.
Brownlee couldn’t be reached to discuss future legislation.
Contributing: Brent Wistrom of the Eagle Topeka Bureau