School funding, public records win, but Kansas’ financial state is iffy

05/17/2014 7:31 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Winners

Senate President Susan Wagle: The Wichita Republican shut down two bills that could have embarrassed the state — a religious freedom bill that would have shielded anyone from legal action for refusing to provide service to same-sex couples on the grounds of faith, and a bill banning surrogate pregnancy contracts. Wagle also gave the push needed to pass a measure giving tax credits to corporations donating money for scholarships sending poor students to private schools.

Kansas Equality Coalition: Given the conservative makeup of the Kansas Legislature, the group that fights discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity enjoys few wins. But this year it can celebrate with defeats of the much-criticized religious freedom bill and the ban on surrogate pregnancy contracts.

Rep. John Rubin: The Shawnee Republican went against the political grain of the Legislature and won passage of a bill mandating insurance coverage of children with autism. Not easy given what lawmakers think of the Obamacare mandate. He also struck a big win for open records when he successfully won passage of a bill that should make it easier to access police records showing what led to an arrest or a search of a property.

Sen. Jim Denning/Rep. Marvin Kleeb/Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr.: The Johnson County troika helped craft legislation giving school districts limited ability to raise property taxes to fund their own operations. Johnson County schools have long wanted this autonomy, now they got it. Without the provision, there’s a chance Johnson County might not have received any money from the bill, which was intended to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that found an unconstitutional spending imbalance between rich and poor schools.

Losers

Gov. Sam Brownback: For a while, it appeared like the governor would score big with a bill putting $129 million into education. But it all went south in the last week of the legislative session. Reports surfaced that the FBI was investigating the lobbying activities of his associates, state revenues plummeted below projections and the state credit rating was downgraded, partly because of the tax cuts he pushed through in 2012 and 2013. Will he — and the state — rebound in time to beat presumptive Democratic nominee Paul Davis for a second term?

Rep. Charles Macheers: When you’re a freshman legislator and you become the national face of a bill critics said would discriminate against same-sex couples, you haven’t had a good session. Not only was Macheers criticized nationally, it didn’t help the Shawnee Republican that the business community, including telecommunications giant AT&T, came out against the bill as well.

Revenue forecasters: In mid-April, the Kansas Revenue Estimating Conference boosted state revenues by $178 million through mid-June 2015. Two weeks later, state revenues were down $93 million — just for April. How could these fiscal gurus — including academics and members of the governor’s administration — have been so far off ? Did the governor’s tax cuts cost us more than we know?

Teachers: Last year, the Legislature took away the teachers union’s ability to deduct money from paychecks to bankroll political activities. This year, the Legislature stripped teachers of the right to ask for a hearing if they were fired and they had been on the job for at least three years. Could collective bargaining be next?

Passed

Public schools: The Legislature met the mandate from the Kansas Supreme Court and put $129 million more into education to resolve a spending disparity between rich and poor school districts. They also gave school districts more room to raise local property taxes. Conservatives gave tax breaks to corporations that make scholarship donations for less-well-off kids to attend private school.

Autism: The Legislature passed a bill mandating insurance coverage for children with autism. Kansas is now one of 34 states to require autism coverage. The new law will only help an estimated 750 Kansas children out of more than 8,000 with autism, but supporters had struggled for six years to push through the coverage.

Public broadcasting: Every year, it seems, public broadcasting is on the budget chopping block. This year, an effort to eliminate funding for public broadcasting was set aside and the Legislature allocated $600,000 for Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.

Guns: In a move that ensures firearms can be carried openly statewide, lawmakers passed a bill canceling out some city and county gun restrictions. Locally, the bill affects Kansas City, Kan., Leawood and Prairie Village, which banned the open carry of firearms in public places.

Open records: The Legislature passed a bill making public key police documents — known as probable cause affidavits — used to justify arrests or searches. There are exceptions in the law, but it was a win for Robert Harte and his wife, Adlynn. They had fought to learn why deputies raided their Leawood home two years ago in a failed search for marijuana. The search produced no charges or evidence.

Obamacare: The Legislature continued its fight against the federal Affordable Care Act by passing a bill allowing Kansas to join a compact with other states wanting to get out from under the health care law. The Kansas law is rooted in a part of the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress to approve multistate compacts, an unlikely possibility in the immediate future since Democrats are now in the majority in the U.S. Senate.

Mortgage fees: The Legislature eliminated a nearly 100-year-old fee to register a mortgage. The bill phases out the mortgage fee over five years. The bill increases fees for filing various documents at the courthouse to help ease the loss of the mortgage fee revenue. However, by 2019, the losses to Johnson County government could add up to $49 million.

Failed

Religious freedom: A bill protecting anyone from legal action for refusing to provide service to same-sex couples on religious grounds died amid an avalanche of national criticism.

Wind energy: For the second straight year, wind energy advocates successfully fought off attempts to repeal the state’s renewable energy standards even though opponents of the mandate spent thousands of dollars aggressively lobbying lawmakers. Expect this to return.

Snakes: Johnson County pushed to remove the redbelly and smooth earth snakes from the state’s threatened species list. The protections were driving up the cost of development projects. The issue could still be settled administratively by the state wildlife department.

Sex education: A bill requiring parental consent for students to take human sexuality courses passed out of a House Committee and died awaiting a debate by the full chamber.

Elections: A bill moving city and school board to elections to the fall from the spring of odd-numbered years died in the House. The goal of holding primary elections in August followed by general elections in November was to boost voter turnout.

Fluoride: A bill requiring cities and other local governments to issue warnings that they fluoridate their water supplies died in a committee after it was roundly denounced by public health officials. The bill declared fluoride dangerous.

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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