Kansas lawmakers return to Topeka for a session in which they will weigh questions about gay rights, the state’s mental health system and a slew of other topics. Here are some of the issues to watch:
One major question at the start of the session will be what happens to money for courts.
Lawmakers passed a bill last year that tied court funding to a change in the way district court chief judges are selected. The Kansas Supreme Court recently struck down the chief judge policy, saying it violated the separation of powers. That could put court funding in jeopardy. A judge stayed the law on court funding, but lawmakers could opt to cut the judicial budget.
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Lawmakers gave themselves two years to rewrite the state’s school funding formula. This is the first of those years; legislators are mixed on how much will be accomplished on school funding in a year with a tight budget. And a Supreme Court ruling on school finance could throw a wrench into things.
Other education issues: merit pay for teachers and a bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers for distributing harmful material to minors. That bill passed the Senate last year and could be taken up by the House this year.
Kansas hospitals still want the state to expand Medicaid coverage to 150,000 more Kansans. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce added expansion to its policy priorities because of the potential to lower business costs.
But House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, strongly opposes the idea and removed expansion supporters from the House Health Committee. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said she is open to debating the idea but has stopped short of supporting a bill.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who saw a hospital close in his district, could sway more Republicans to support it.
Lawmakers may try to place limits on the prescription drugs that Medicaid patients can receive. One proposal would require step therapy, a process by which patients try more cost-effective treatment options before more expensive drugs. Another proposal from Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, would cut off Medicaid benefits for hepatitis C patients who go off their medication or drink alcohol.
New spending won’t be popular this year, but more money for public safety officers may win bipartisan support.
Officials have made the case that higher pay for corrections officers would help stem high staff attrition – guards going elsewhere for better wages. Although a pay increase is seen by many as a priority, finding the money could be difficult.
Col. Mark Bruce, Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent, has asked legislators to consider a $7.50 increase in the state’s $10 motor vehicle title fee. That would allow him to add 75 troopers for safety reasons and put the patrol closer to the 500 officers it had 10 years ago.
The state faces a projected budget shortfall of $14 million for the current fiscal year that ends in June and a $170 million shortfall for the next fiscal year. Republican leaders say they want to cut spending rather than raise taxes again or change income tax cuts. Democrats say it would be foolish to leave tax policy off the table.
Kansas is one of 14 states that taxes groceries and one of few that tax food at the same rate as other items. Lawmakers considered lowering the sales tax rate on food last session. They scrapped the idea from the final tax plan and promised to revisit it in 2016. But with a budget shortfall, it may be difficult to cut the tax on groceries.
A property tax law passed in 2015 continues to rankle some. Starting in 2018, it puts limits on local property taxes, a decision many city and county officials want to revisit. Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers would like to move the start date earlier.
Guns on campus
Public universities will have to allow concealed firearms on campus in July 2017 under a law previously passed by the Legislature. Some faculty and students want lawmakers to reverse this policy in the wake of a shooting at an Oregon community college. Gun rights supporters, on the other hand, say allowing concealed carry will make campuses safer.
Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, has pushed to mandate that police officers wear body cameras while on patrol. Some Republicans have expressed support for the use of body cameras but have been hesitant to pass a state mandate for local law enforcement agencies. Another question that probably will come up is whether the video collected by body cameras should fall under the Kansas Open Records Act. Some lawmakers say the footage should not become a public record.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families has faced allegations that it is not doing enough to protect children in the foster care system and that it has discriminated against gay and lesbian couples in foster care and adoption cases. The agency has said it did not discriminate and has defended its safety record. Lawmakers will vote on a proposed audit of the agency in January.
LGBT rights/religious freedom
The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a bill that would ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kansans in the workplace, housing and other areas. Nineteen states have policies barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. All but three of those also protect gender identity.
Religious conservatives are expected to push for stronger protections for people who do not want to serve gay couples after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
Senate Democrats will push for a bill that would prevent lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until two years after they leave office. Another proposal would prevent government officials who leave to become lobbyists from representing entities that have state contracts.
Lobbyists for the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County will push for several initiatives, including one that pits the two governments against each other. The city wants the Legislature to grant an exemption to a sales tax distribution formula set by the state, contending it is getting short-changed on its share of the one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax collected by Sedgwick County. County commissioners want the distribution to remain the same.
Meanwhile, the county’s main legislative goals involve limiting cities’ ability to annex and rolling back regulations tied to state and federal endangered species protection laws. They say the regulations harm county public work projects.
A bill that would legalize medicinal hemp to treat seizure disorders passed the House last session. The idea found bipartisan support after a child, whose family was pushing for the bill, had a seizure in front of lawmakers during a hearing. The proposal now goes to the Senate, where it could face strong opposition from Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, chair of the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare.
The state mental hospital in Osawatomie lost Medicare funding last month after federal inspections revealed systemic failures to protect patient and worker safety. Legislators plan to hold more hearings on the troubled hospital’s future. And mental health advocacy groups want the Legislature to give behavioral health providers more authority over emergency observation and treatment; that could provide more options for law enforcement officers faced with people who are mentally ill.
Private e-mail, open records
The Kansas Judicial Council and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have recommended that the state close a loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows government officials to do public business by private e-mail. Lawmakers from both parties have voiced support for opening such communications after The Eagle reported last session that the governor’s budget director had sent a draft of the budget to two lobbyists by private e-mail before unveiling it to lawmakers. A bill will be reviewed by Senate Judiciary Committee this session.
Contributing: Daniel Salazar of The Eagle, Edward M. Eveld of the Kansas City Star