The 2014 Kansas legislative session began with craziness and careened toward adjournment this week against a backdrop of ominous financial news.
Along the way there were a few steps forward, some disasters averted, but a good amount of damage done.
Legislative leaders spent the first few weeks shelving bills that subjected the state to widespread ridicule. Among other things, they involved surrogate parenting, spanking and an attack on fluoridated water. We’ll refrain from a rehash of the embarrassing details.
Lawmakers did find time to focus on a couple of constructive measures:
• They passed a limited mandate requiring health insurers to pay for behavioral therapy sessions for some children with autism.
• They approved a bill making public the evidence that law enforcement uses to charge people with crimes or obtain search warrants. Kansas is the only state to conceal that information.
And the Legislature thankfully rejected some horrible ideas:
• A bill allowing Kansans to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of “religious freedom” passed the House but was denied a hearing in the Senate, though not before it became national news.
• A ridiculous proposal to grant a property tax break to gyms and health clubs was resurrected several times but finally put to rest on Friday.
• In a particularly gratifying move, the Legislature rebuffed a push by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and others to repeal a state standard that utility companies must obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.
But the bright spots of the session, and even the near misses, pale in comparison to some troubling bills passed by the Legislature and already signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.
• Lawmakers created new problems without solving old ones in a massive bill hastily passed to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order to correct funding inequities among school districts. They took money from schools that serve at-risk students; forfeited future tax revenues so that corporations can provide scholarship funds for certain students to attend private schools; and wiped out due process for teachers.
• The Legislature again refused to make health care available to nearly 100,000 working Kansans by expanding Medicaid. In fact, lawmakers took a step to make expansion more difficult in the future. And they passed a bill enabling Kansas to potentially disassociate itself from federal health care programs and regulations, assuming Congress would agree to simply give the state money and let it run its own show. Given the ups and downs of the state’s KanCare program, that’s an alarming prospect.
• Legislators stripped local governments of any authority to respond to needs in their communities and regulate firearms. Weapons can now be carried openly throughout the state.
The session had a surreal tone, as many legislators chose to ignore the elephant in the statehouse — the fact that Kansas is broke. Its budget is only balanced by drawing down reserves.
That message was driven home this week as new figures showed state revenues fell $92.8 million short of projections for April. Fooling almost no one, the Brownback administration blamed the problem on President Barack Obama’s tax policies.
The next day, Moody’s Investors Service lowered the state’s credit rating a notch. It cited “Kansas’ relatively sluggish recovery,” unwise forays into the designated highway fund to balance the budget, an underfunded retirement system, and Brownback’s income tax cuts as reasons for the downgrade.
The fiscal news out of Kansas was so bad that Republican lawmakers in Missouri had to adjust their messaging.
For a couple of years they have insisted that Kansas’ severe income tax cuts will put Missouri in an uncompetitive position. The Missouri legislature has passed a bill phasing in tax cuts that eventually could cost the state at least $600 million a year. If courts would agree with Gov. Jay Nixon’s contention that the bill contains a major drafting error, the cost could be in the billions.
By the end of this week, Missouri lawmakers were saying that Kansas cut its taxes too quickly and sharply, but their bill is wiser.
All of it is nonsense. Growth in the 21st century economy relies on educated workforces, strong schools and universities, and sound roads and other infrastructure. That doesn’t happen with speculative tax cuts. Nixon has vetoed the Missouri bill, and lawmakers should sustain his veto.
As for Kansas, an end to a legislative session usually brings relief — for lawmakers and citizens. But Kansas’ 2014 session is closing with a growing sense of foreboding.