The 2016 Kansas Legislature convenes Monday, and the plan is to keep the session short and, if not sweet, well, somewhat blah.
The state budget needs some surgery, no doubt, but the hope among many is to hold controversies to a low political roar — and then everybody out, maybe in 75 days.
That’s an understandable impulse. Lawmakers endured a 2015 session that stretched to a record 114 days and featured a battle royal over how to repair an enormous budget hole.
The answer, bitter to most, was to raise sales and cigarette taxes.
But there’s another reason some want to make the session quicker and lower key than last year. It’s an election year.
All House and Senate seats are up for election in 2016. And while both chambers are dominated by conservative Republicans, Democratic and moderate Republican opponents are trying to mount a challenge to the status quo.
Still, wrangling over budget matters and tax policy, to name a couple of issues, is unavoidable. And there’s a looming wild card: the school funding lawsuit known as Gannon v. Kansas.
The Kansas Supreme Court could issue a ruling that would require the state to pay millions more to school districts. That would throw the legislative session into “a lot of turmoil,” Gov. Sam Brownback told The Star recently.
One of the Legislature’s current undertakings is to come up with a new school finance formula. A study committee met between the 2015 and 2016 sessions with the goal of offering lawmakers some guidance.
But that could be brushed aside this session. The current funding plan, a temporary block-grant formula, remains in effect. So with their eyes on the 2016 election, lawmakers could wait until the 2017 session to make that controversial call.
They also may decide it’s prudent to hold off until the Gannon case is resolved.
“I think it makes legislators hesitant about doing anything on school finance until they know what the full view is,” Brownback said.
Besides school funding, several issues are likely to spark some fights many incumbents would like to avoid.
Budget and taxes
Senate President Susan Wagle said she hoped for a short session in this off-budget year of the state’s two-year budget cycle — maybe 75 days. And she believes there’s no stomach in the Senate for tax increases.
Republican leadership will favor cuts rather than tax increases as the way to solve budget problems.
First, without adjustments or improved revenue results, the current budget is headed into the red by the end of the fiscal year in June. Then the 2017 budget, which begins July 1, needs repair — its projected shortfall is about $170 million.
Kansas is one of only 14 states that taxes groceries and one of the few that does so at the full sales tax rate, the group said. The state rate increased in 2015 from 6.15 to 6.5 percent, and local sales taxes push that rate higher.
A controversial property tax law passed in 2015 continues to rankle some. Starting in 2018, it puts limits on local property taxes, a decision many city and county officials want to revisit. Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers would like to move the start date earlier.
And what about those income tax exemptions in place for some 330,000 small-business owners, a policy that many Democrats and moderate Republicans blame for the state’s economic woes?
That’s a battle Republican leadership plans to avoid. Brownback and legislative allies maintain that their tax policy is working to increase jobs.
Prison guards and troopers
New spending isn’t popular at the statehouse, but more money for public safety personnel may win bipartisan support.
Officials have made the case that higher pay for corrections officers would help stem high staff attrition — guards going elsewhere for better wages. But while a pay hike is seen by many as a priority, finding the money in a zeroed-out budget is a problem.
Bruce has an idea about how to pay for that. He’s asked legislators to consider a $7.50 increase in the state’s $10 motor vehicle title fee.
That money would allow him to add 75 troopers, he said. And a fee increase might get a warmer reception from lawmakers than a tax proposal.
Except to disparage the idea, Medicaid expansion isn’t on the agenda for many in the Legislature’s conservative Republican leadership. Thirty states have expanded Medicaid health coverage for the poor, but Kansas has held fast against it.
Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who favors expansion, believes it is sorely needed for those who earn too little to receive help with insurance premiums, has broad public support and makes good fiscal sense. But, she predicted, legislative leaders will block any bill on the topic.
Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican and Senate vice president, has an idea for an expansion plan accomplished through private insurers. But House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, has been a staunch opponent of expansion. Merrick removed Bollier and two other lawmakers sympathetic to Medicaid expansion from a House committee that considers health issues.
Lawmakers will hear from proponents of expanding eligibility.
The Kansas Hospital Association has spotlighted the millions of dollars in lost federal funding for not expanding Medicaid, or KanCare as it’s known in the state. Some business leaders also have called expansion a priority. And some proponents will argue that financial troubles at rural hospitals could be lessened if Medicaid were expanded.
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said that despite the need for expansion, “we don’t have the voices in Topeka” to make it happen.
Juvenile justice reform
Juvenile justice advocates want to reform the state’s system by reducing incarceration and recidivism rates for young offenders.
Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, has long had an interest in the topic. And a working group, with technical assistance from a section of Pew Charitable Trusts, recently proposed policy changes to promote alternatives to incarceration.
Lawmakers also will hear from an organization launched last fall called Kansans United for Youth Justice.
Kansas hasn’t enacted major juvenile justice legislation in many years and spends far too much to incarcerate youths or send them to out-of-home placements, often the most ineffective move for young offenders, the group maintains.
A host of other issues will be in the mix.
Lawmakers, now including some conservatives, are concerned by the ongoing practice of the Brownback administration to transfer revenue from the highway fund to the general fund, which has needed continued transfusions as revenues fall short of projections.
More and bigger requests for transfers are likely to be met with deeper skepticism, worries about the potential damage to road-maintenance programs and new projects.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican and a moderate, said she was part of an effort last session to try to stop some transfers.
“The point of our action was to draw attention to the problem,” she said. “The funds sweeps are alarming.”
The Legislature recently lost a separation-of-powers case when the Supreme Court struck down a 2014 law that took away the court’s authority to appoint chief district judges.
Now lawmakers must address legislation passed last session that said if the 2014 law were ruled unconstitutional, the judiciary’s budget would be “null and void.”
The attorney general has said the Legislature can’t void the judiciary’s entire budget, and the defunding law was put on hold until March.
A law that will require state universities to allow concealed handguns on campuses in 2017 is drawing concern from some students, faculty and administrators. University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little has said she opposes concealed carry at colleges.
While the issue might draw discussion, attempts at repeal will run up against gun-rights advocates in the Legislature.
Issues surrounding gay and lesbian rights are likely to be presented from both sides of the political spectrum.
Some conservative lawmakers are interested in protections for those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage and who don’t want to provide services at same-sex weddings.
More moderate and liberal lawmakers were angered last year when Brownback reversed an order by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, that said state workers could not be fired, harassed or discriminated against for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In speech in Leawood, Brownback holds his line
Gov. Sam Brownback is not only the state’s elected leader, he’s the leader of the state’s Republican agenda.
In a speech Thursday at a Republican gathering in Leawood, he stood firm on his conservative policies, which he said would make Kansas the best place to raise a family and the best place for small businesses.
He seemed to leave no room for a softening of his positions during the upcoming legislative session, particularly his supply-side economic policies.
On taxes: Cutting income tax rates, from 6.45 percent to 4.6 percent for the top bracket, and eliminating income taxes for many small businesses is paying dividends, particularly in jobs numbers, Brownback said.
The state’s unemployment rate is at 4 percent, the lowest in 14 years, he said, despite slumps in several economic sectors, including oil and gas and agriculture.
“How does that happen? You grow small business,” Brownback said. “You get jobs and money moving into the state.”
On welfare and Medicaid: Welfare reform, which included work requirements and limits on eligibility time, are moving people off welfare and out of poverty, he said.
About Medicaid, known as KanCare in the state, he said, “KanCare is working, Obamacare is failing.”
Brownback has resisted calls to expand the state’s program. Medicaid expansion is part of the Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare.
On state revenue: While acknowledging that the latest state revenue receipts were disappointing — below projections for sales taxes and income taxes — Brownback said, “we have to see what happens.”
“We’ll deal with it,” he said. “Our focus has been on growing the economy, not growing the government.”