Politics & Government

2014 Kansas legislative session so far: ‘tremendous’ or a waste of time?

So far, the 2014 legislative session has featured sonograms in the Capitol, bills that would criminalize surrogacy contracts and multiple hearings about the woes caused by Obamacare.

And that’s just the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Social issues have seemingly dominated the first half of the legislative session. Democrats and some moderate Republicans say little has been accomplished that is meaningful to constituents.

But Republican legislative leaders say their focus has not wavered from the economy and job creation.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, pointed to passage of a bill giving property tax relief to cement companies as an example. Others say overlooked legislation like property tax and unemployment insurance reforms will create a more stable environment for business.

“Except for the one hiccup, I think it’s been a tremendous session,” Merrick said.

He was referring to House Bill 2453, which would shield Kansans who refuse services to same-sex couples on religious grounds. Supporters maintained that the bill, which gained international notoriety, was intended to protect religious liberty. But a diverse group of critics attacked it as overly broad and discriminatory.

It passed the House 72-49, only to hit a dead stop in the Senate. Some House members who voted for the bill now say they misunderstood its true impact.

Merrick said he cannot prevent members from filing bills and that he trusts his committees to approve only bills that will benefit the state.

“The process works most of the time, as long as there’s not shenanigans. And I can’t control everything,” he said.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chairs the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which gave initial approval to HB 2453. He said the media has mischaracterized the religious freedom bill’s intention.

He said that there is “a war on people of faith” throughout the country.

“I don’t see that as a social issue. I see that as protecting the First Amendment. We took an oath to uphold the Constitution,” he said.

When it comes to distracting legislation, Republicans point to a bill sponsored by Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, which would have allowed parents to spank children to the point of redness and bruising. That bill died before it got a hearing but still was skewered, along with the religious freedom bill, on late-night TV.

Democrats and moderate Republicans questioned why some bills, which seem designed for ideological purposes, win approval in committees while others are unable to even get a hearing.

For example, expanding Medicaid would help thousands of people in the state, said Rep. Barbara Bollier, a retired doctor and a moderate Republican who often breaks from her party.

“I’m always disappointed when things that are that significant don’t have even hearings. I don’t understand that. I think to do the work of the people, you get it into the Legislature and let bills be heard,” Bollier said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said “very little has been accomplished that’s (on) any meaningful issues that relate to people and their daily lives.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, acknowledged the Senate has passed little legislation of significance. She said quality is more important than quantity.

“Large amounts of legislation doesn’t always equal good legislation and a healthy economy. Sometimes less legislation is far better,” Wagle said.

Killing bad bills

Wagle said she wants to focus on business-friendly legislation, and bills that divert the Senate from that task are unlikely to find much traction.

She halted HB 2453.

She also let it be known that the Senate would not consider a controversial anti-surrogacy bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, less than an hour after its first hearing. And she sent back to committee Pilcher-Cook’s Senate Bill 401, which would make it easier to prosecute educators who expose students to materials a parent finds offensive.

With the religious freedom bill, Wagle consulted lawyers and business leaders about its impact. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a similar bill last week, citing similar concerns about its scope and unintended consequences. Wagle joked that she was glad Brewer could “borrow” her reasons.

Wagle said she has instructed all of her committee chairs to scrutinize legislation before it comes to the floor.

“We’re very careful and very deliberative when it comes to language. And I’m very proud of my chairs because they’re doing what I asked. They’re reading every word. Words have consequences. We’re scrutinizing the effects of the bills that are proposed,” Wagle said.

Ryan Gilliland, Wagle’s chief of staff, said that killing bad bills is as important to the legislative process as passing good ones.

“I think a lot of the good government has been what has died. Because it’s not always what passes, it’s what doesn’t pass, which is good government,” Gilliland said.

‘Elevating the discussion’

Senate Democrats have been less enthused about the work of their chamber.

“Public Health has been a total waste,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, ranking minority member of that committee. She accused Pilcher-Cook of transforming it into an ideological platform with hearings on surrogacy and demonstrations of sonograms.

Pilcher-Cook defended the agenda she has set for the committee.

“One of the things that I discovered being a legislator is it’s not always just about getting bills passed. It’s about elevating the discussion, so the public can be made aware of what’s going on,” she said in a phone conversation. “I think it’s the duty of a legislator to help provide information to the public.”

One bill the Senate has passed would prevent federal regulation of prairie chickens in western Kansas. The birds are expected to be added to the endangered species list later this year.

“That is our finest accomplishment,” Kelly said sarcastically.

Wagle defended the legislation.

“There’s a lot of those critters running around in northwest Kansas. And there’s a lot of resentment amongst my body for federal regulators,” she said.

Lawmakers have considered other symbolic stands against the federal government, including a House bill that would commit Kansas to join a proposed health care compact that would be independent from the Affordable Care Act.

Waiting for court decision

This is not how the session was supposed to go. Before it started, leaders in both parties said the Supreme Court’s decision on school funding would dominate the session.

The court has not ruled yet.

“The reality is right now we are all waiting …,” Bollier said Thursday. “It might have no impact. And it might have tremendous impact. … It’s uncertain.”

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, agreed that the longer the court goes without issuing a decision, the harder it will become for the Legislature to tackle the issue.

He disputed the notion that the Legislature has been off focus this session.

“We have to do our job and that’s what we’re doing,” Huebert said. Some bills had been sensationalized, he said, adding that work on issues such as education has continued without much notice and will come to the floor later in the session.

Others say the two-year budget cycle allowed the Legislature to focus on other matters this session.

“They have more idle time, I guess, so they can preoccupy themselves with crazier, more controversial matters,” Hensley said.

Merrick said the two-year budget gave lawmakers the opportunity to focus on other matters, but he agreed some bills have been unnecessary.

“Without that budget and everything, there’s other things that fill time, and I guess we’re seeing some of the bills being filed to fill time,” Merrick said.

Kelly had a different analysis. She pointed to polls from Survey USA and Public Policy Polling that show House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, about even with Gov. Sam Brownback in the governor’s race.

“I think there’s a sense of desperation to this, that this may be our last chance to have somebody in the governor’s office who won’t veto this stuff,” she said.

Asked if the governor shared the Legislature’s focus on social issues, Sara Belfry, Brownback’s spokeswoman, responded in an e-mail: “The Governor is focused on growing the Kansas economy and the proposals he laid out during the State of the State address.”

Belfry said the governor’s focus isn’t on the election. His priorities are his proposal for all-day kindergarten, restoring funding to universities and a pay increase for classified state employees, she said.

“He looks forward to continuing to work with them on these important issues as the session moves forward,” she wrote.

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