The final deadline to push bills out of the house of origins kept committees busy through this eleventh week in the Kansas 2015 legislative session. The intensity level is rising in Topeka, discourse is bordering on the uncivil, and even though the conservative alliances are getting harder to forge – the extreme push is on. While we may have known the next big wave of extreme policies were coming the moment the November election results were finalized, this foresight doesn’t make the reality of all the wasted opportunity and pending damage any less appalling.
Foul Tips to Good Government, just to name a few
Guns. The legislature sent Governor Brownback another gun bill, one that allows Kansas residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit everywhere within the state’s borders and without even the minimum eight hours of training required. Once signed, Kansas will join only four other states with such permissive firearms laws - Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming. In addition, permit fees are estimated to be almost $10 million annually. Where will the Legislature go to replace those funds?
Elections. The Senate passed the bill restricting candidates from removing their name from the ballot after winning a primary race. This bill was written by Secretary of State Kobach (HB2104) in response to his loss in the Kansas Supreme Court to prevent Chad Taylor from removing his name from the race for US Senate, in contest with Greg Orman and Pat Roberts.
Women’s Health. The legislature sent the Governor another bill (SB95) chipping away at women’s reproductive rights, all but functionally banning abortion procedures in Kansas. “Whether at the beginning of life, or the end of life, Kansas is the most pro-life state in America. And we are not going back” (Governor Brownback, 2015, State of the State Address). These extreme views have led Kansas to the forefront of a movement to protect religious ideology, not life. If Kansas lawmakers really cherished life, they would spend their efforts expanding health care, raising stagnant wages, and providing educational opportunities. Instead, we have debates in the Legislature comparing established medical procedures to Nazi experimentation.
Anti-Discrimination. Senator Francisco offered an amendment during the appropriations negotiations to restore protection for LGBT state workers from discrimination. Unfortunately, the amendment failed on an 8-32 vote.
- Medicaid Expansion. While the House has held hearings on Medicaid expansion under the leadership of Rep Jim Ward, the Senate is showing no signs of consideration, despite overwhelming, bi-partisan support.
A silver lining. Efforts to move multiple anti-labor bills out of committee have not yet been successful. And an amendment attempt to gut and go the educators’ compromise bill on the teachers Professional Negotiations Act failed to gain traction.
Education Strikes Out
Education groups were noticeably absent when Governor Brownback signed the block grant bill this week, repealing the K12 school finance formula. Press were not invited to the signing ceremony, but they still got the word out. Within 12 hours, the Schools for Fair Funding coalition of Kansas school districts filed papers to block the law from going into effect. The three-judge panel also issued a statement when the bill was initially begin worked, that it might move to block the legislation from going into effect while the lawsuit is still pending.
This new law – ironically called the Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success act – would freeze school district funding through 2017 at the same dollar amount our classrooms received over 15 years ago, with no guarantee these funds will not be cut even further. This new law also jeopardizing the restoration of pre-recession level education funding of $550 million, by challenging the authority of the Supreme Court to hold the Legislative branch accountable for their constitutional obligation (Article 6, Section 6). Essentially, base funding for Kansas classrooms per student is on the decline, while expected outcomes are on the rise:
- $3,811 base funds for FY 2015, cut mid-year from $3,852
- $3,811 base funds for FY 2016 and 2017, frozen regardless of inflation or enrollment changes
- FY2000 last time base funding was around $3,811, adjusted for inflation is $5,207 in 2015
- $4,400 base funds in FY 2009, prior to the great recession cuts
Any noted increases in education funding are typically dated from the low point of the recession and are primarily back payments to shore up the state pension fund. No doubt, the state’s duty to make good on the unfunded pension obligation is critical, but it is disingenuous on the part of lawmakers to claim these funds are helping to bring needed resources to the classroom. Overdue pension payments are being taken directly out of the investments in our children’s future and at a time when a college education is about the only way to make a livable wage.
A silver lining. The House Education Committee prevented three additional bad government bills from moving out of committee. The ban on the state education standards (HB 2292) was ironically scuttled by one supporter because the proposed repeal of those standards didn't happen fast enough. Efforts to repeal in-state tuition for the children of undocumented workers who have lived in Kansas for at least three years (HB 2139) failed, as did the proposed financial penalty on districts who do not comply with data privacy act (HB 2262).
Irresponsible behavior perpetuated, as the legislature worked spending bills before a budget has been set. The Senate appropriations bill that passed requires tax increases to generate enough revenue to balance the budget. Even with cuts included, the bill still requires increased revenues. This Senate bill cuts $1.3 million from Wichita State, reduces KU funds by $4.6 million and cuts $2.1 million from K-State. The Department of Transportation would only receive about two-thirds of its funding request, with over $500 million of its revenues swept to fill budget holes in the State General Fund. Roughly $2 billion has been swept from KDOT since FY2011, to shore up revenue losses following implementation of the new tax policy. The Senate version does not include the judiciary nor K12 education. Those appropriations bills will be run separately, to allow the Senate to tack on policy bills in exchange for money – a process known as bundling. The House budget includes judiciary and K12 education, an approach that protects each of the appropriations elements from bundled policy ad-ons. However, the House chose not to put their bill in a Senate shell, which means any negotiated items can be stripped out and separated by the more conservative Senate.
If we can’t stop the train wreck, let’s make sure Kansans know how the state was derailed and get more moderate engineers and conductors on board in 2016 to right the course.