Over the span of 10 hours Wednesday, Kansas elected officials made a slew of important and controversial decisions that could have a long-lasting impact for the state.
The House sent two groundbreaking bills to the governor’s desk. One will give the state one of the loosest gun laws in the country and the other sets up a new restriction on abortion, making Kansas the first state in the nation to outlaw a procedure often performed in the second trimester of pregnancy.
On the other side of the Capitol dome, the Senate passed a budget bill that spends nearly $6.5 billion from the state’s general fund. It will require at least $140 million in tax increases to balance.
And Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a bill that will dismantle the state’s 23-year-old school finance system in favor of block grants, a move that could set the governor and the Legislature up for a major battle with the state’s courts.
It’s probably not a coincidence that several major events happened on one day, said Michael Smith, a professor of political science at Emporia State University.
“I think in a sense the governor and the legislative leaders want it to happen all at once. For one thing, they want very ambitious changes,” Smith said. He added that packing big pieces of legislation into a short time period gives opponents less of an opportunity to mobilize.
He said bills passed this week help set up future battles between the Legislature and the courts.
“The court challenge to the school funding law has already been filed, and I’m sure the abortion one will follow,” he said.
Here’s a quick look at those decisions:
Gov. Sam Brownback signed SB 7, which repeals the existing school finance formula and sets up flexible block grants for the next two years, in a private ceremony with lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in the middle of the day. The governor’s office did not issue notice of the signing until Wednesday evening.
The next day, lawyers for Schools for Fair Funding, a group that represents Wichita and other school districts, filed a motion with Shawnee County District Court to prevent the law from taking effect.
Supporters say the bill gives school districts stable funding for the next two years and say the flexibility will ensure no school district has to cut any programs. But districts have raised concerns about cuts to operational funding, which will occur in the middle of this school year if the bill takes effect.
The bill is set to go into law on Thursday.
The Kansas House overwhelmingly passed a bill that will restrict an abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. The vote was 98 to 26.
SB 95, which has already passed the Senate, will head to the governor, who has already promised to sign it. It would make Kansas the only state in the nation to ban the procedure, which accounts for about 8 percent of the abortions performed here.
Gynecologists consider the D & E procedure one of the safer options for women in their second trimester. Lauren McQuade, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said in an e-mail that the legislation will put women “in harm’s way by denying doctors the ability to provide the safest care available for their patients based on their individual medical circumstances.”
Anti-abortion groups say the procedure, in which a physician uses forceps, is gruesome and inhumane. “The simple truth is D&E dismemberment abortions are as brutal as the partial-birth abortion method, which is now illegal in the United States,” Ostrowski wrote in a post for National Right to Life News. Ostrowski called the vote historic.
The bill allows for criminal prosecution and civil action against physicians who perform the procedure. It makes an exception in cases where it is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman.
Kansas would become the sixth state to allow “constitutional carry.” Residents would no longer need to go through training or obtain a permit to carry a concealed gun if the governor signs SB 45.
The bill’s supporters emphasized individual liberty and contended that since the state allows people to carry openly without training, it was unnecessary to require training for concealed carry.
The bill was strongly pushed by the National Rifle Association and the Kansas State Rifle Association.
But it had drawn scrutiny from some members of the law enforcement community, who raised safety concerns about allowing untrained people to carry concealed weapons. Some business owners also spoke out against the bill. Bill Warren has said that it will likely force him to prohibit guns in his Wichita movie theaters because of increased liability.
The House approved a bill that will allow the state to issue $1.5 billion in bonds to ease the state’s pension burdens for the next few years as lawmakers try to resolve a budget shortfall. The Senate has previously passed a bill that would allow for $1 billion in bonds to be issued. The two chambers will work toward a compromise plan this next week.
The plan, proposed by Brownback in the face of the state’s budget woes, has been called risky by the Wall Street Journal. It would lower the state’s monthly obligation to the public employees’ pension system. The state would invest the proceeds from the bonds, which some experts say is a dangerous gamble. Critics have compared it to using a credit card to pay off a debt on your other card.
The Senate passed a budget for 2016 that would require more than $100 million in tax increases to balance. The budget spends $6.48 million from the state’s general fund and $15.47 million from all funding sources, including federal aid.
If the Legislature does not pass any new taxes, the state would be left with a projected shortfall of $141 million at the end of fiscal 2016.
The governor proposed $211 million in tax increases in January that would balance the budget and leave the state with a 1.1 percent ending balance, significantly less than 7.5 percent balance recommended in statute.
Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, the Senate tax chair, said lawmakers would “do what we have to do” to make the budget balance. He said there are several moving parts – including revised budget estimates to be released in April – to consider before lawmakers approve or reject any specific tax proposals.