Kansas lawmakers will return to Topeka on Wednesday with a number of issues to resolve before they conclude the 2015 session.
The most pressing issue: Lawmakers need to come up with more than $400 million in tax increases or spending cuts for the state to break even at the end of the 2016 fiscal year.
But there’s a host of other proposals as well. Will lawmakers override the governor’s veto on a bill that sought to impose stronger insurance regulations on ride-share companies such as Uber? Will the House pass a bill that would exempt campus religious groups from anti-discrimination policies at state universities? Will Medicaid expansion ever make it to the floor for a vote?
Here’s a rundown of issues to watch.
1. What tax increases?
It’s become increasingly accepted that the Legislature will have to raise taxes to balance the budget. But there’s still no consensus on which taxes. Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal for steep hikes in alcohol and tobacco taxes has support from public health advocates but not from lawmakers who live near the Missouri state line.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and other Republican leaders want to revisit portions of the 2012 tax law changes, which have been blamed by economists for helping dig the budget hole. They have begun scrutinizing an exemption that enables more than 300,000 business owners to pay no state income tax. Brownback defends the exemption as a way to spur economic growth and will likely resist the push to change it.
Other taxes – including an increase in sales tax and the elimination of some existing sales tax exemptions – might also go into the final fix.
2. Medicaid expansion
Moderate Republicans and Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully to expand Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Kansans. However, with difficult votes on the budget and taxes ahead, moderates may be able to negotiate for Medicaid expansion as part of a grand compromise. The legislation could also appear as an amendment during a floor debate and might just have enough votes to pass in the House.
3. Liquor in grocery stores
Despite a strong lobbying push, the “Uncork Kansas” bill that would enable grocery and convenience stores to sell liquor and full-strength beer has yet to make it to the floor of either chamber for a vote. That could happen during the wrap-up session. The issue doesn’t break down along traditional party lines, so it’s difficult to predict which way a vote would go. Small liquor stores and alcohol wholesalers oppose the legislation, while Dillons, Wal-Mart and QuikTrip back it.
4. Ride-share rules
Brownback vetoed a bill that would have required ride-share companies, such as Uber, to certify that drivers have comprehensive and collision insurance. It also would have required drivers to undergo background checks conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The bill passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, but Uber threatened to pull out of Kansas if it became law.
Lawmakers have threatened to either override the governor’s veto – which requires a two-thirds majority – or pass the bill a second time.
Since the governor’s veto, the company has expanded into four cities in the state and signed several high-profile lobbyists, including Brownback’s former campaign manager.
5. Religious groups on campus
The House could take action on SB 175, which would prevent public universities from disciplining campus religious groups that refuse to adopt an “all-comers” policy. The bill has passed the Senate and been approved by a House committee.
The legislation comes in response to incidents in other states, such as the California State University system’s decision to de-recognize Christian groups that would not adhere to a nondiscrimination policy.
Supporters say the bill is necessary to protect religious freedom on campuses. Opponents say it gives campus religious groups license to discriminate and do so with public funding.
6. Incentives for wind energy
The past few sessions, the Legislature has battled over whether to keep the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which mandates that utility companies obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. A repeal pushed by Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce has been rejected in the past two sessions after pressure from the wind industry to preserve the mandate.
Brownback signaled last year that he would be willing to phase out the RPS if the sides can compromise. The wind industry is concerned about losing a property tax break and about lawmakers moving forward with an excise tax on wind production. That gives opponents of the RPS leverage for a possible compromise, if the industry is willing to lose the RPS in order to preserve low taxes.
7. Prosecution of teachers
The Senate passed a bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers for distributing material deemed harmful to minors. It awaits action in the House. The bill is a response to a highly publicized incident in the Shawnee Mission School District involving a poster for a sex education class that parents found offensive.
Another bill would require parents to sign a permission slip before their children could receive sex education.
The bills have drawn the ire of the education community, which sees them as an attack on teachers. Supporters say the legislation is needed to protect students.