Government & Politics

That bill you love, that bill you hate? A KC area lawmaker likely cast a key vote

Rotunda of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.
Rotunda of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The final days of the 2018 Kansas session showed just how bitter and divisive legislative debates can become.

As time wound down, three bills deeply divided the Legislature's political factions: taxes, an adoption measure and a school finance bill that will soon have its day in front of the Kansas Supreme Court.

And in each of those situations, votes from Kansas City area lawmakers either pushed a bill to passage or helped prevent a measure from making it to Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Adoption

As conservative Republicans worked throughout the waning days of the session to get the adoption bill passed, they found support from a moderate Shawnee Republican.

The adoption bill, which narrowly passed in the final 48 hours of the session, will allow faith-based adoption agencies to reject gay and lesbian couples. Colyer plans to sign it.

It passed the House on a 63-58 vote and the Senate 24-15. One fewer yes vote in the House would have essentially killed the bill.

And that’s where Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, came in.

Cox joined conservative Republicans in passing the bill, becoming the only established moderate Republican in the Johnson County delegation to vote for it.

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“I voted for that bill not because I was gung-ho about it, but because the original version was so potentially devastating that it had language that I felt, and others agreed, (could) actually bar LGBT people from adopting in the state of Kansas.”

Cox said the original language could have opened up the ability to essentially ban LGBT couples from adopting or fostering in Kansas.

"It was vaguely worded," he said.

Cox said the new language provides an exemption for faith-based private adoption agencies to use their religious beliefs in determining which families they work with.

“In order to get that language added, I had to support the bill,” Cox said. “I had heavy reservations, and I still do about it, but sometimes we have to make hard choices like that. Sometimes your choices aren’t something between good or bad, sometimes it’s between bad and worse.”

School finance

The new school finance formula, the latest attempt to satisfy the state Supreme Court, passed with the bare minimum number of votes.

The bill, which Colyer has signed, will boost funding to Kansas schools by more than $500 million over five years.

It took members of all three factions to pass the bill, with Democrats and conservative Republicans largely voting against it. But Rep. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, broke away from many in the Democratic House delegation to vote for it.

It was one of the rare times when moderate Republicans and Democrats voted alongside conservative House Speaker Ron Ryckman on a contentious issue. Democrats tried to push more funding into the bill, and failed, while conservatives fretted that the bill’s funding level would endanger the state’s budget picture.

An $80 million error in the bill was later discovered, though lawmakers were able to pass a fix during the final eight days of the session.

Holscher said having the Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts in her legislative district played a key role in her voting for the bill.

But she doubts it will satisfy the Supreme Court.

“It was the most we can get based upon who is currently in the Legislature,” Holscher said. “And, honestly, it’s a real shame that we even had to beg for this much.”

Taxes

In one of the final votes of the session, the Kansas House rejected a tax bill that would have cost the state an estimated $194 million in revenue over the next three years. The bill was an effort to return a "windfall" from the Trump tax cuts to Kansas taxpayers.

The measure also included business tax breaks, though it was unclear how much money the state would forgo.

It passed the Senate with the bare minimum of votes.

Conservatives called for the bill to pass, and moderates such as House Majority Leader Don Hineman also supported the move. The message from some Republicans was not passing the bill would amount to a tax increase.

Johnson County moderate Republicans resisted the move. Their support, along with their conservative colleagues, could have pushed the bill to passage.

But the wave of new moderates, including Rep. Joy Koesten, R-Leawood, and Rep. Jan Kessinger, R-Overland Park, along with established Johnson County moderates, played key roles in killing the bill.

Koesten said the tax bill had not been very well thought out.

“With all the uncertainty that we face, not only at the federal level but also the state level, it just seemed like pure folly to even consider such a proposal,” she said.

The moderates' votes against the tax bill comes in an election year where every seat in the House is on the ballot, and taxes are likely to be an important issue.

“It was fiscally irresponsible,” Kessinger said. “It would have been a knee jerk reaction to gain votes because I cut taxes.”

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