Major accomplishments came out of the 2017 Kansas legislative session. An override of a governor’s veto to raise income taxes and a new school funding formula were the result of more-moderate Republicans teaming with Democrats to end tax cuts that had slowed state revenues.
Kansas government appeared to be on a road to mending.
Then the Kansas Supreme Court kicked back the school funding formula, saying the latest attempt was unconstitutional, inadequate and inequitable.
So an uncertain 2018 legislative session begins Monday in Topeka. Uncertain because there’s no easy fix for a new school funding formula that could cost hundreds of millions more. Uncertain because many other areas of state government – law enforcement, prisons, the agency overseeing foster care – are also badly in need of more funding.
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And uncertain because the State of the State speech will be delivered Tuesday night by Gov. Sam Brownback, who months ago was expected to be in Washington by now as a religious freedom ambassador.
He’s expected to deliver a budget Wednesday, then lawmakers get busy creating a new school finance formula – against the backdrop of November elections for House members.
Raising taxes in an election year is usually a last resort. Many who voted to raise taxes last year have seen constituents pelted with mailers criticizing their votes by anti-tax organizations.
The top lawmaker in each chamber told The Eagle last month that there’s no appetite for raising taxes again – though Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, don’t always have final say in what legislation reaches the floor.
If raising taxes is off the table, deep spending cuts would be necessary. A third option, floated by conservative lawmakers, is letting voters decide if a constitutional amendment should take the school funding decision out of the Court’s hands. Moderate Republicans and Democrats haven’t supported the idea.
Other issues highlight the session. The prison system is crowded and has problems retaining corrections officers. The Department for Children and Families, with a legislative committee highlighting its problems, is in the midst of an overhaul. Opioid abuse is a continuing disease that could use legislative help in mandated insurance coverage.
The state’s Medicaid system, KanCare, gets an overhaul this year and lawmakers may try to expand Medicaid to more Kansans. They passed similar legislation last year but couldn’t overcome a Brownback veto.
A trending legislative topic late last year that might slip back into the shadows is the lack of transparency within Kansas government. A Kansas City Star series highlighted the secrecy enacted and enabled by state and local agencies, including the Legislature. Bills without author names and “gut-and-go” legislation, where contents of a bill are changed without warning, have been common in both chambers for years.
Don’t expect it to change soon. Ryckman said “gut-and-go” is often necessary given other legislative rules.
“Our system is set up to kill bills,” he said in a meeting with The Eagle’s editorial board. “When we talk to our secretary … she talks about all the things that make it very difficult to pass the bill.
“Eliminating (gut-and-go) without changing some of the other procedures and rules we have, we’d be in a fix.”
Still, it’s worth both chambers’ time to take an honest look at how the Legislature conducts business. Easing procedures is an option if it leads to more open, effective government.
But addressing open government may be for a slow day in the session, and there don’t appear to be many of those coming.
The challenge to meet – or skirt – the Kansas Supreme Court’s demand for a new school funding formula will take deliberation and consensus. Lawmakers will show they’re serious about finding a fair funding formula, do their best to get by, or leave it up to the voters to take it out of the Court’s hands.
The decision will affect Kansans for years to come.