Capitol Watch: No place off limits for fretful Kansas and Missouri lawmakers

State offices in Kansas will still be able to spring for coffee and doughnuts, after the state Senate rejected an amendment to halt hospitality spending as an austerity measure.
State offices in Kansas will still be able to spring for coffee and doughnuts, after the state Senate rejected an amendment to halt hospitality spending as an austerity measure. File Photo

The Kansas Senate passed a budget that doesn’t balance. Radical bills on guns and abortion cleared the Legislature. Gov. Sam Brownback signed a monumental school finance law in a private ceremony with nary an educator or student in sight. Strange is the norm in Topeka these days.

If the Missouri General Assembly seemed strangely quiet, it’s because lawmakers were on spring break. The action resumes Monday.

Order and the court

Things are getting nasty in Kansas between the Legislature and the judiciary.

Conservative lawmakers had hoped to shake off court scrutiny of their school funding decisions by scrapping the old formula and giving districts lump sums to spend as they see fit. But a panel of judges handling the long-running school funding lawsuit has indicated it might call the Legislature’s not-so-subtle bluff and block the new law.

Lawmakers have responded with veiled threats of budget cuts for the courts and interference with judicial selection. Sen. Mitch Holmes, a Republican from St. John, has even introduced a bill expanding the grounds for impeachment of Supreme Court justices, including “attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch of government.”

Lawmakers do need to remember that court cases are initiated by plaintiffs, and what some legislators regard as “usurping” their power is actually judges doing their jobs.

Cutting the fat

While passing a budget that spends more money than the state expects to bring in, the Kansas Senate included $3 million to hire a consultant to find efficiencies in state government.

This seems inefficient. Kansas government has been forced to find savings because of repeated budget cuts in recent years. And the Legislature’s own Division of Post Audit is pretty good at spotting problems — without the high price tag.

Senators also debated whether to ban the use of state funds for hospitality purposes, like refreshments.

The amendment failed, 8 to 30, but it provided an interesting window as to what passes for hospitality in Topeka. Coffee and doughnuts were mentioned. So was bottled water. “I had a boxed lunch once,” volunteered Sen. Jeff Melcher of Leawood. The most exotic item named was bison, which some legislators enjoyed courtesy of the Department of Wildlife.

One takeaway here is that if you want to be well fed while serving as a legislator, you should run for office in Missouri. The fare in Jefferson City is much more substantial.

Number of the week

One and a half million dollars. That’s how much United Way leaders around Kansas estimate they will collectively lose if the Legislature follows through on its horrible idea of banning most automatic payroll deductions for state employees.

The point is to stop union dues from being automatically deducted. But some senators thought that would be too obvious, so they wrote the bill more broadly, not realizing they’d be harming the United Way.

The Senate this week refused to remove the wider language. But that essentially poisons the bill.

“Without the charity portion being removed, I think it probably kills the bill,” said Senate Majority leader Terry Bruce.

The reprieve is probably only temporary. Chances of the anti-union move returning next year: 99 percent.

Take a break

One Missouri legislator who kept busy on break this week was Jeff Pogue, a Republican from Salem. He has been defending two bills he filed aimed at making sure public bathrooms do not accommodate transgender citizens.

One bill would require all but single-occupancy public restrooms to be divided by gender. Another would bar state funds from going to “any entity” that attempts a “project, program or policy that creates or attempts to create a gender-neutral environment.”

Pogue’s bill may have been prompted by the University of Missouri’s plans for a 16-bed, gender-neutral wing in a dormitory on its Columbia campus.

In a Facebook post, the legislator said he worried about predators. “There are numerous cases of men dressing up as women to gain access into locker rooms and restrooms,” he said.

We’re not sure how banning gender-neutral environments would stop that, or why the legislature should get involved in restroom choices. But Pogue’s bills would make for some unusual testimony.