What’s still on the table as Kansas legislators return for wrap-up

06/07/2014 6:42 AM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

The only thing lawmakers must do when they return to Topeka on Wednesday to wrap up the 2014 legislative session is pass a revised budget.

Many on the Senate side are hoping for a quick end to veto session. Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said that after lawmakers pass the budget they should go home and save taxpayers’ money.

But other issues – ranging from mortgage fees to prairie chickens – are likely to compete for time.

The House could consider several bills that have already passed the Senate.

House members will get to decide whether to take a stand against federal authority over wildlife. They’ll also face a choice on whether to pass a bill that Sedgwick County officials say diminishes local control and hurts the county’s pocketbook.

And after questions of transparency clouded the school finance debate earlier this month, House members also have the option of passing a bill meant to increase transparency and accountability at the statehouse.

Corrections spending

The governor vetoed the 2015 Corrections budget last year. If the Legislature doesn’t approve a bill that the governor will sign, the Department of Corrections would go into fiscal year 2015 with a budget of zero.

The House passed a Corrections budget in February that cut the education budget for juvenile offenders by about $3 million from what the governor requested.

The Senate passed a budget for the entire state in early April that mostly adhered to the governor’s recommendations for Corrections, but dropped a proposed 1.5 pay raise for classified state employees including Corrections workers.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said last week that the scramble for more education dollars helped eliminate that proposal.

Jeremy Barclay, spokesman for Corrections, said in a phone call that the department supports the Senate’s plan.

The House has not passed a statewide budget. But Masterson, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the two chambers could go into conference on the budget as early as the first day back.

The current proposal does not include more money for juvenile residential facilities like Judge Riddel Boys Ranch in Sedgwick County. The county has said it will close the ranch if the state does not increase its funding.

“The fact of the matter is we cannot continue to afford the cost of that program in its current form,” said Dave Unruh, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission, in a phone call.

Transparency

The Senate passed SB 413, also known as the Transparency and Accountability Act, unanimously in April. It would create a pilot program that would enable Kansans to watch live stream video of legislative committee meetings online.

The bill would make government more accessible to the people who pay for it, said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park. She is hopeful it will make it to the House floor during the wrapup session.

“These are our taxpayers paying our salaries. And the people who can’t be there should be able to see all of this. What we do, our proceedings, belong to the people,” she said.

Some have criticized a lack of transparency as the Legislature struggled to pass a school finance bill in early April. The process included late-night and early morning meetings – one at 4 a.m. on a Sunday that Democrats say may have violated open meeting laws.

Sometimes late-night meetings need to happen, but this bill would ensure that they are open to the public, Clayton said.

“Sometimes under our current system when things move that quickly, things do fall through the cracks. This is going to ensure that even these meetings in the middle of the night are out and available for people to see. It puts everything on the up and up, the way it should be,” she said.

Prairie chickens

SB 276 would declare state sovereignty over non-migratory wildlife, as a way to prevent federal regulation of Kansas wildlife. The lesser prairie chicken was named to the threatened species list by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March.

Supporters of the bill warn of increased federal regulation because of the threatened species designation. Fish and Wildlife has said it will invoke an exemption and allow Kansas and neighboring states to proceed with a conservation plan without new regulations.

The Senate passed the bill in February before the federal agency had made the designation.

In April, a House committee stripped out a provision that would allow federal employees to be charged with a felony in Kansas if they try to enforce any laws or regulations dealing with prairie chickens.

This caused Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s election campaign to tweet an urgent message to followers: “URGENT ALERT - PRAIRIE CHICKEN BILL GUTTED! Call your state reps today.”

It’ll up to the House to decide whether to restore this provision and whether to send it to the governor’s desk.

Mortgage fees

SB 298, passed by the Senate earlier in the session, would gradually repeal mortgage registration fees and provide a partial offset through increased filing fees.

The bill is strongly backed by the Kansas Bankers Association and meant to make banks more competitive against tax-exempt farm credit service loans in commercial property sales.

But it would have a huge fiscal impact for Sedgwick and other urban counties. Sedgwick County estimates that the policy will cost the county $800,000 next year and more than $3 million in 2019 when it is fully implemented.

Unruh has repeatedly said the county would be forced to either raise property taxes or cut services.

“We have absorbed pretty substantial cuts in the last 10 years and they just keep adding up, adding up, adding up… It amounts to enough of a cut in our revenue stream that we just simply can’t absorb any more,” he said.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, the Senate Assessment and Taxation chair, has said the bill should be looked at as a tax cut for homebuyers because it will reduce the fees they pay when buying a house.

Doug Wareham, senior vice president of the Kansas Bankers Association, made the same point Monday. “We look forward to the Legislature voting to end a tax that discriminates against people that borrow money to purchase a home or a business,” he said.

Tax breaks for health clubs

A proposal to give property tax breaks to private health clubs will have to be resolved after it was added to another tax bill, HB 2643, on the Senate floor in early April.

The policy has been pushed by Rodney Steven II, owner of Wichita-based Genesis Health Clubs, who contends it is meant to address an inequity between private clubs and the YMCA, a nonprofit that is exempt from sales and property taxes.

Renewable energy standards

There could be another attempt to repeal renewable energy standards. Clean energy supporters breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the House voted down a bill that would repeal a mandate for utility companies to receive 20 percent of their power from renewable sources in 2020.

Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, noted that because the legislation passed the Senate, it can still be considered and added to another bill. And Americans For Prosperity, one of the groups calling for the repeal, said the issue was not dead for this legislative session.

Religious freedom and gay rights

One issue that is unlikely to come up in the wrapup session is religious freedom, which dominated debate during the first half of the legislative session.

HB 2453, which passed the House and hit a dead stop in the Senate, would have allowed private and public employees to refuse service based on religious beliefs about marriage. Critics said the bill was meant to enable widespread discrimination of same-sex couples.

Some conservative groups and lawmakers still want to increase religious protections for opponents of same-sex marriage, but staff for Senate and House leaders said there are no plans to revive the bill or its provisions and that any attempt to do so would not have leadership’s backing.

Common Core

The tea party group Kansans For Liberty is calling on lawmakers to revive efforts to stop Common Core, a set of national education standards adopted by the Kansas Board of Education in 2010.

A bill to stop implementation of Common Core never made it out of the House Education Committee. An amendment to halt funding for it passed the Senate but was dropped during negotiations on the school finance bill.

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