Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers getting work done at rapid pace by midsession

The Wichita Eagle

Kansas lawmakers are sprinting through the 2016 legislative session, bumping up legislative deadlines and passing a budget in February.

The rapid pace is a marked contrast to last year’s marathon session that stretched to a record 114 days as lawmakers struggled to find a budget fix.

They still have major work ahead of them this year. The budget, passed last week on the 39th day of the session, does not address the Kansas Supreme Court’s recent order to fix inequities in school funding before July 1 or risk school shutdowns.

The Legislature reached turnaround on Tuesday. That’s the deadline for most bills to pass their house of origin and is usually considered the midpoint of the session. Lawmakers will take a seven-day break before returning for the rest of the session.

Asked what he thought the Legislature’s biggest accomplishment was so far, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, replied: “Getting out as quick as we did.”

He acknowledged that lawmakers still have some major work ahead, particularly on school finance, but said he’s pleased with work done so far on the budget and other issues. As he got on an elevator to exit the Capitol, Merrick added: “Do no harm.”

Democrats have been less impressed.

“It has been almost two weeks since the state’s current method of funding schools was ruled unconstitutional,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said in a statement Tuesday. “And they have adjourned early for turnaround without a plan from the Governor or the Republicans in the legislature – talk about a lack of leadership.”

The following is a rundown of the major action taken by lawmakers this session.

Alcohol

Gov. Sam Brownback has signed SB 133, which exempts underage drinkers from prosecution if they call for medical help. The legislation is intended to encourage underage drinkers to call 911 if they or a friend drink too much.

Borrowing

Lawmakers have scrutinized bonds and other forms of debt financing in response to moves by Brownback’s administration and the University of Kansas. The budget includes provisions that cap the state’s debt financing and block the governor from using sales tax revenue bonds to bring the American Royal to Kansas. KU will be barred from spending beyond its approved budget without legislative approval after the university went out of state to issue $326.9 million in bonds last month.

Lawmakers say the issue is restoring legislative oversight to the state’s finances. They also passed a bill meant to get the state out of a $20 million lease-purchase agreement approved by the Brownback administration to finance construction of a state power plant without legislative approval.

Budget

The House and Senate passed a revised budget earlier this month that will allow the governor to delay payments to the state’s pension system to free up cash this fiscal year, which ends in June. It requires repayment with 8 percent interest by September. The budget does not address a recent court order for more school funding.

The budget is a starting point meant to ensure that state agencies can continue to pay their bills, lawmakers say. House members plan to bring legislation later this session to enact cost savings recommended by a private consulting firm, which they say could save the state $2 billion over the next five years.

Courts

Lawmakers ensured that the courts will continue to be funded beyond March, something that was in doubt at the start of the session. But tension continues to increase between the Legislature and judicial branches. A proposed constitutional amendment to change the way state Supreme Court justices are selected won a majority in the House but fell short of the two-thirds needed to pass. Another proposal, postponed by the Senate, would expand the list of reasons for which a justice could be impeached to include attempting to usurp the power of the Legislature.

Education

GOP leaders have said they will reach a solution to inequitable school funding before the Supreme Court’s July deadline. But Democrats have criticized them for not moving more quickly.

Fights over curriculum have also mounted this session. A bill that would have required the State Board of Education to craft guidelines for an ethnic studies curriculum failed on the House floor Monday. And controversy has been brewing over a bill that would repeal the Common Core standards and could affect AP and IB testing. That bill didn’t make it to the floor Tuesday but could resurface after turnaround because it was originally introduced in an exempt committee.

Foster care

An audit of the state’s foster care system – with an emphasis on safety and privatization – was approved in January by the Legislative Post-Audit Committee.

A bill that would set up a special category of foster care families, who would have greater independence and control over their foster kids’ education, was approved by the Senate on Tuesday. Couples who volunteer to participate would have to be lawfully married for seven years and have no liquor or tobacco in their home. At least one parent could not work outside the home. The bill now goes to the House.

Gay rights/religious freedom

Fights over gay rights and religious freedom have been confined to committee hearings so far this session. Some lawmakers want to enact anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation to ensure that a person can’t be fired or evicted for being gay. Other lawmakers want to strengthen religious protections already on the books in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Guns

A bill that would enable public employees to carry firearms while they’re on duty but off site won passage in the Senate. Opponents say it would endanger public safety by allowing public employees who aren’t trained law enforcement officers – such as code inspectors – to go out into the community with concealed weapons. Supporters say public employees have a constitutional right to conceal and carry.

During debate on that bill, amendments to delay or move up the date public universities must open their campuses to concealed firearms failed. Colleges will have to allow concealed weapons on campus in July 2017.

Head injuries

Chiropractors could sign off on whether a student athlete can return to the playing field after a head injury under a bill advanced by the House. Under current law, a medical doctor must make that decision. Supporters say the bill will increase access in rural communities, where medical doctors are scarce. But opponents question whether chiropractors have the expertise to make the decision and say this will endanger student athletes.

Hunting

The House also passed a resolution, backed by the National Rifle Association, to declare a right to hunt, fish or trap under the Kansas Constitution. If the Senate also passes the measure by a two-thirds majority, voters will consider the constitutional amendment in November.

Medicaid expansion

Attempts to force votes on Medicaid expansion have been blocked in both the House and Senate. No hearings have been scheduled on the issue so far, but Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has promised a Senate vote will take place later this session. Many Senate Republicans want to vote on the legislation simply to defeat it as a symbolic gesture in an election year.

Open records

A bill advanced by the Senate would close a loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows public officials to conduct public business on private e-mail with no repercussions. The bill would make e-mail messages and other records created by public officials in relation to their official duties public records regardless of whether they were made on a private device or e-mail server. The legislation, backed by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, is a response to The Eagle’s reporting last year that showed Brownback’s budget director had used a private e-mail to send two lobbyists with ties to the governor a copy of the budget weeks ahead of lawmakers.

Osawatomie State Hospital

Lawmakers provided $3 million more for the hospital to boost staffing after it lost its federal Medicare certification in December. They also added a provision that will prevent the governor from privatizing the state hospitals in Osawatomie and Larned without legislative approval.

Public safety

The revised budget provides $2.5 million to pay for a 2.5 percent raise for the state’s correctional officers, a move meant to curb high staff turnover in state prisons.

A bill advanced by the Senate would increase vehicle registration fees by $3.25 to help the Kansas Highway Patrol hire more officers and to help support the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson.

The Senate also advanced a massive overhaul to the state’s juvenile justice system, which emphasizes counseling over incarceration. Supporters say the community-based programs that would be expanded under the bill are more effective at preventing recidivism among juvenile offenders.

Revenge porn

A person who posts nude images or video of an ex-lover online without his or her permission could face jail time under a bill advanced by the House. It seeks to curb the phenomenon known as revenge porn. The legislation would allow for prosecution under the state’s breach of privacy and blackmail laws when someone posts sexual material online without a person’s consent. Kansas would be the 27th state to criminalize revenge porn if the bill, which now heads to the Senate, becomes law.

Speed limit

An attempt to increase the speed limit to 80 mph on multilane divided highways failed in the House. The chamber did approve a bill allowing the secretary of transportation to raise speed limits on rural two-lane highways by 5 mph.

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