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Lawmakers watching state issues develop
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After passing a two-year budget in 2013, the Kansas Legislature is starting 2014 quietly, at least in the House of Representatives, Rep. John Edmonds (R-Great Bend) told constituents Saturday.
Edmonds, along with Sen. Mitch Holmes (R-St. John) and Rep. Troy Waymaster (R-Lucas), attended the Legislative Coffee at the Kansas Oil and Gas Museum in Great Bend. Turn-out was lighter than usual after Great Bend received a small amount of snow. Waymaster, the last legislator to arrive, said Russell received 3 inches of snow.
Edmonds recalled a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which the fact that a dog didn’t bark was significant. “In the House, at least, the dog has not barked at all,” he said, adding “nothing of substance has been passed or teed up for debate.”
He shared copies of the 2013 supplement to “Kansas Tax Facts” from the Kansas Legislative Research Department. Kansas state and local government net tax revenue totaled $13.478 billion in Fiscal Year 2013, up 2.36 percent from the previous year.
“I don’t expect any major tax initiatives this year,” he said.
However, the Legislature is still waiting for the Kansas Supreme Court to rule on a school-funding lawsuit. The Court could order the Legislature to increase K-12 funding by up to $600 million.
If that happens, all three legislators agreed, those who hold the purse strings may not be as quick to comply as the Legislature was in 2005. That year, the Court ordered the Legislature to modify the funding formula for public schools and increase base state aid per pupil to $4,492, and barred future cuts to per-pupil spending. The state complied until the recession hit, then it began reducing the per-pupil spending base. It’s now down to $3,838.
This time, Waymaster said, “There may be the momentum to change the constitution.” The change could be on how court appointments are made, and/or to the definition of what constitutes a suitable education.
Edmonds said the Legislature might not comply with a court order to increase funding. Or it could shift funding from other state programs, or increase taxes. “All three are ugly options,” he said. Taking the position that the Supreme Court does not appropriate funds would cause a “constitutional crisis,” he said, as the state treasurer would be forced to choose between obeying a Supreme Court order or the Kansas Constitution.
“The reality is, the Court is kind of backed into a corner,” Holmes said. “The Legislature is very resistant to it going to them with a direct command, as they did in 2005.”
But the court case is also different this time around, Holmes said, and the Kansas Attorney General’s office has given the Court several ways to dismiss the case.
Several other issues were discussed Saturday at the coffee.
Holmes commented on the fact that Rep. Clark Schultz (R-McPherson) was chosen to replace 35th District Sen. Jay Emler (R-Lindsborg), who was recently confirmed to serve on the Kansas Corporation Commission. “They’re going to have a big hole to fill over there in the House,” he said.
Edmonds serves on the Robert G. Bethell Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight. He said he has opposed adding long-term services for Kansans with developmental disabilities to KanCare, and “if it comes to a vote” would probably oppose it again. “But it’s a fait accompli as of today,” he said, noting the shift that took place on Feb. 1.
Holmes talked about a proposal to repeal mortgage registration fees that are charged by counties. Bankers and Realtors want the repeal, but counties, which benefit from the fees, are opposed to the idea and say it would lead to higher property taxes. Last year the fees raised $47.8 million, and about 95 percent of that went to the counties.
(Last month, Barton County Administrator Richard Boeckman said the fee has generated between $158,000 and $294,000 annually since 2011 – the equivalent of anywhere from 0.7 mills to nearly 1.1 mills.)
Those supporting the bill say it’s an unfair tax based on the size of a mortgage; those who can afford a bigger down payment for a home are taxed less that those who can’t.
“The problem is, the counties depend on that funding,” Holmes said. If the bill becomes law, “your mill levy may have to go up to replace it.”
Holmes said he expects some issues that failed in 2013 will return this year, including bills that would allow grocery and convenience stores to sell wine and spirits, a bill to allow mid-level dentistry, and a medical marijuana bill. In these areas, Holmes said he’s listening to his constituents, and he’s not heard much support on any of the issues.
Holmes also noted that the Ethics and Elections committee, which he chairs, advanced a bill that would do away with political action committees run by legislators serving in leadership roles.
Waymaster represents the 109th Kansas House District, which consists of the entire counties of Osborne, Russell and Smith, and portions of Barton, Jewell, Lincoln and Rush counties. He noted that last week the director of the Kansas Water Office told legislators the state will update a 1982 study on building a concrete aqueduct to divert water from the Missouri River from northeast Kansas to southwest Kansas, with water available to others along the route.
The lawmakers said the intent is to help replenish the Ogallala Aquifer, although it would be expensive and would require lift stations to compensate for elevation increases from east to west. Some of those attending the coffee spoke out against the plan.
Waymaster is a member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Last week the committee had a hearing on commercial driver’s licenses; he’s serving on a subcommittee that is looking at CDL testing sites, which could include Barton Community College.
Waymaster said he also has co-sponsored a bill to include autism on insurance coverage.
Waymaster is also a member of the Natural Resources Budget committee. He said he supports efforts to ensure the sustainability of the Oil and Gas Depletion Trust Fund, allowing counties to again access funds that were cut last year.