After years of failing to resolve one of the biggest issues confronting the state, Kansas lawmakers are running out of time.
This year, they’ll have to tackle the future of public education in Kansas — and then face voters soon after.
With the governor’s office and every seat in the House on the ballot in 2018, lawmakers are expected to take on the daunting task of fixing school finance, along with other concerns during the 2018 legislative session that starts Monday, all while the governorship could change hands from Brownback to Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer at any moment.
Brownback is waiting to be renominated for a post in President Donald Trump’s administration. He then will face a Senate confirmation process that could drag on for weeks or months.
Beyond school finance, Kansas lawmakers will face questions about transparency and expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
Medicaid expansion did pass the House and Senate last year, but lawmakers in the House were unable to overcome a Brownback veto.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who opposed expansion last year, said he can see a similar situation playing out again.
“It probably will pass,” Hawkins said. “It’ll be vetoed. It’ll be sustained and guess what? We’re back to the same place.”
Among key issues the Kansas Legislature will confront in the months to come:
Kansas lawmakers have little time to spare in their quest to pass a school finance formula that the Kansas Supreme Court will deem acceptable.
The state’s high court ruled in October that the new formula passed by the Kansas Legislature in 2017 was unconstitutional, adding another chapter in long-running litigation over the quality and funding of Kansas schools.
Lawmakers took their time passing a new school finance formula last session, waiting until nearly the end to send a finished formula to Brownback.
The Legislature’s timeline will likely be shorter this year. The state must submit its solution to the court by the end of April, and the court will decide by the end of June whether the plan passes muster.
But in an interview Thursday, Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she expected action “on school finance probably late in the session,” after explaining the need for outside experts to review the situation.
“We are a separate branch of government,” Wagle said when asked about the court’s April deadline. “I think it’s highly unusual that the court would set a date for an independent branch of government, the Legislature.
“So we are pushing this as quickly as we can to get it done within their timeline, but you’re talking about getting outside experts. ... I’m not too worried about that deadline. We’re working as fast we can to comply with the court ruling.”
Though lawmakers pumped more money into school funding last year, the court did not give lawmakers a specific dollar figure in its fall decision.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs has a number in mind.
“It’s exactly $600 million short,” John Robb, an attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and three other plaintiff districts, told The Star in October.
An increase that large would require tax increases or deep cuts in other areas of government.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the first challenge is to determine what is adequate.
“I think that somewhere between $300 (million) and $400 million would be a target that I think we can reach,” Hensley said.
Some conservatives, including Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, are pushing for a constitutional amendment instead. In a statement last month, Pyle’s office said the move “would amend the Kansas constitution, giving exclusive authority over schools to local school boards.”
“...This unique approach provides local control of these issues and gives exclusive authority to elected school boards, not bureaucrats or judges in Topeka who continue to wastefully spend and grow government,” Pyle said.
But passing a constitutional amendment would be a tough task even in the GOP-dominated Legislature. The Republican side is split between moderate and conservative members, and Democrats have a sizable caucus.
A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate and then would go to a statewide vote. It could not be vetoed by the governor.
Kansas has one of the most secretive state governments in the nation, The Star found in its recent investigation, “Why so secret, Kansas?”
The Star’s series highlighted multiple examples of state and local agencies hiding information from the public eye.
Among them: a grieving father who was asked to sign a document that would have prevented him from talking about the death of his son and a state agency’s involvement in the case.
The series also described a number of transparency issues within the Legislature itself, including “gut-and-go,” a common practice in which lawmakers gut a bill and insert an unrelated measure. The move helps legislation move quickly, with less public debate.
Other practices included allowing authors of bills to remain anonymous and letting committee votes go unrecorded.
After the series was published, lawmakers said they would push to fix the state’s culture of secrecy.
But on the session’s eve, it wasn’t clear what changes might materialize.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said he didn’t know of any specifics, but he thought there were things lawmakers can and should do.
“But we need to be careful that whatever steps we take aren’t an overreach that leave us with a system that no longer functions,” Hineman said.
Asked what transparency measures he’d like to see, Hineman said he would rather not say at this time.
Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, said he’d like to see an end to anonymous bills and gut-and-go.
“I think it would be worth doing; I guess the question is if we have support for transparent changes,” Parker said.
Who’s in charge?
Last fall, when Brownback thought he was nearing confirmation as Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, he began to hand off responsibilities to Colyer.
Brownback said Colyer would take the lead on developing the budget proposal. Soon after, it was Colyer, not Brownback, who announced a Cabinet appointment.
But since the start of the year, Brownback has made clear that he is still the governor and will remain in office until he wins confirmation in Washington.
Brownback will give the State of the State address Tuesday — his “swan song,” he said during a recent meeting — and officials have said that the budget that is presented to lawmakers on Wednesday will be Brownback’s.
Meanwhile, Colyer, who is running for governor in November, would like to step into the job as soon as possible as he ramps up his campaign and hopes to establish himself in office.
Colyer’s office muddied the picture further Friday when he announced plans to hold a news conference with Gina Meier-Hummel, the new secretary of the Department for Children and Families, about “budget enhancements.”
Leading lawmakers differ on whether the Brownback/Colyer situation is a problem.
“I don’t think it matters that much,” Wagle said. “We’re happy to work with either the governor or his lieutenant.”
Hensley said the situation has a great deal of impact on Republicans “because they don’t know exactly who is in charge.”
“There is a tremendous amount of confusion and uncertainty as to exactly who the leader is,” Hensley said. “I’ve never seen anything like it going into a legislative session.”
Concerns about sexual harassment and misconduct in the Capitol began to grow while the Legislature was out of session last year.
The Star reported on allegations from several legislative interns and other young women about sexual advances and lewd comments they had faced.
Legislative leaders condemned harassment, and in the final months of last year Wagle brought in the Women’s Foundation to recommend policy changes.
Those recommendations, released at the end of December, include allowing victims to anonymously report allegations and a non-fraternization policy for interns, legislative staff, elected officials and lobbyists.
Wagle said the Women’s Foundation’s involvement has “definitely improved awareness of expectations of behavior here within the Capitol.”
“I hope just by being in communication with them, the environment’s improved,” she said.
But it’s an ongoing project, she said, with policy changes expected. Those changes probably would come through policy adjustments rather than legislation, she said.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t happen,” Wagle said of sexual harassment. “If it does happen, it’s addressed.”
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.