The Legislative Session has begun.
Week One – January 18
The Legislative Session has begun. Legislators were sworn in on January 14th and the next morning commenced a swarm of activity. This year, unlike previous year, there will be no slack time at the beginning of the session. Things began happening on Day One; bills that had been prepared prior to the session were ready to make their way through the system. This is gearing up to be a very exciting year and I am honored to be a part of it.
Several bills have been referred to committee and bills will be coming to the floor sooner rather than later. On Tuesday, during his State of the State address, we heard from the governor his priorities for the session. His agenda is ambitious, proposing major reform, such as amending the constitution to change the way that judges are selected. The legislature is also faced with the school finance decision that the Shawnee County court handed down last Friday. There can be no doubt now that the session ahead will be a challenging one.
Last session, the largest tax cut in state history was signed into law. The bill dropped the top rate from 6.45% to 4.9% and the low rate from 3.5% to 3.0%. Until last session, Kansas had the highest tax rates of any of its surrounding states which led to a decade of lost jobs. Now, the tide is beginning to turn with Kansas seeing 1,500 more business filings in 2012 than in 2011, and surrounding states, such as Nebraska, scrambling to lower rates to remain competitive with Kansas.
On Tuesday, the governor called on the legislature to cut income taxes further so as to glide to zero state income tax. In committee this week, the governor's office proposed dropping the bottom bracket to 2.5% in 2014 and then to 1.9% in 2016. Dropping the top rate from 4.9% to 3.5% in 2017 was also proposed. Rather than expanding government, the governor has asked that any revenue that comes in above 4% during this time be used to buy down the tax liability of Kansans. The plan would leave the current sales tax rate in place and eliminate the state home mortgage deduction (there would be no effect on the federal home mortgage deduction.)
The House is committed to continued efforts to encourage economic growth through reduction of the tax burden. The results from last year's tax plan are already beginning to show that such growth can be achieved by leaving more money in the private sector. In light of reducing overall rates, the value of deductions, such as the home mortgage deduction, drop significantly. If the rate of taxation on Kansans continues to drop, deductions will not be as desired as they were when rates were high.
On Wednesday, the governor's budget was presented in the House Appropriations Committee. The governor is proposing a 2 year budget rather than a normal one year budget. By submitting a two year budget, the governor is encouraging the 2013 legislature to address the budget challenges for both FY14 and FY 15. The budget protects Base State Aid Per Pupil, leaving it at its current level of $3,838, and will protect essential services for Kansans in need, and fully funds T-Works. Perhaps, most importantly, the budget would leave the state with the constitutionally mandated 7.5% ending balance.
In the past two years the House has worked alongside the governor to return fiscal discipline to Kansas. Over that two-year period the state has gone from having $876.05 in the bank and facing a projected $500 million shortfall to last year having a $500 million ending balance. The House looks forward to continued work with the governor to make the state government more effective and efficient.
Last Friday, in the case of Gannon v. State, a Shawnee County District Court issued a ruling stating that the legislature has not provided suitable funding for public schools. The court opined that in order for public schools to be adequately funded, the Base State Aid Per Pupil (BSAPP) needs to be increased from $3,838 to $4,492 which equates to a $442 million increase in state education funding per year. It is estimated that, with the current funding formula and LOB requirements, property taxes could also rise by approximately $154 million.
It is interesting to observe that court equates "suitable" education with a quantitative dollar amount. Not only this, but while looking at dollar amounts, they only pay attention to the BSAPP amount, which is merely 30% of total school funding. According to recent information put out by Education Week, the national average Per Pupil Expenditure (PPE) is $11,665. In contrast, Kansas' PPE is more than $12,500, meaning that we spend more total per student than the national average, putting us at 16 for finance among the 50 states. However, while Kansas ranks 16th in finance, the state only ranks 39th overall with a grade of 74.4. Along the same lines, Kansas Policy Institute states that while PPE has risen 30% since 2005, only 56% of 11th grade students are reading grade-appropriate material with full comprehension. This data shows that increasing funding for education does not necessarily correlate with better student performance.
The governor, in his State of the State address, encouraged the legislature to pass a resolution amending Article 6 of the Constitution to make it clear that it is the legislature, not the courts, who will determine what constitutes "suitable provision" for funding public education. The fact that a court has taken upon itself to appropriate money is troubling as it was the intent of the founders that those closest and most accountable to the people should be the ones determining how the public money is spent. The House agrees that ambiguity in law does not best serve the interests of the citizens of Kansas and will see how things develop during the session with regards to a constitutional clarification.
Also as a part of his State of the State address, the governor challenged the legislature to increase the reading proficiency of 4th graders. In 2011, the National Assessment for Educational Progress scores showed that 29% of 4th graders in Kansas read below the "basic" level, and the National Center for Education Statistics states that 40 states are higher than Kansas on 4 th grade reading. The governor put forth a plan including a statewide retention policy for 3rd graders who are not at reading level and targeting funding for literacy prevention and intervention programs for young children. The House understands there needs to be a strong emphasis on results and these are some very positive results-based proposals.
Currently, Kansas appellate court judges are selected though a process by which a commission made up of members of the Kansas Bar Association (KBA) choose three nominees from whom the governor appoints one to fill a vacancy on the court. This is a lot of power that is placed in the hands of unelected individuals who are not responsible to the people. Four of the Commission's members are non-attorneys appointed by the Governor; four others are attorneys selected by attorneys in each of the State's four congressional districts. The Chair of the Commission is an attorney elected by attorneys in a statewide vote.
As you can see from the description, the Kansas Bar association holds a majority of the members of the commission but they are not the only members. In fact, Kansas is the only state that gives such authority to its bar association in the judicial nomination process.
During his State of the State address, the governor called on the legislature to reform the process of selecting appellate court judges to a more democratic model. He asked that a resolution be passed amending the constitution to this effect. The two suggestions he made in amending the constitution were to model the selection after the federal model, where the governor appoints and Senate confirms, or to move to direct election. The House will work to achieve reasonable reform of the current model so that the process is accountable to Kansans.
Kansas currently has two agencies that deal with Kansas highways: the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) and the Kansas Turnpike Authority (KTA.) During the last two sessions, the House has worked with the governor to streamline government and to reduce its size. Currently, having two highway departments nets a minimum of $14 million in duplicated services. An example for the unnecessary duplication of services is in the Emporia area where KDOT and KTA have sheds on both sides of the street.
The governor used his State of the State address to urge the legislature to merge KTA with KDOT. He expects this to allow for greater efficiencies to be made and to help in reducing the size of state government. Such a merger would also bring greater accountability to the agencies with the power now exercised by the KTA Board being returned to their elected representatives.
The House will closely examine this proposal for reducing the size of government and making it more responsible to the people.
Second Amendment Issues
There are several bills being submitted regarding gun issues. These will draw a lot of public attention given the recent school shooting in Connecticut. We will also see bills on modifying (for the betterment) the Conceal and Carry Bill which was passed several years ago. Kansas will be modeling some of the gun bills after those of Wyoming and Texas.
While legislators at the National level sit idly by letting Obama run roughshod over the Constitution, Kansans are stepping forwarding and demanding we enforce our Tenth Amendment rights which says "The Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people".
The Governor has set important goals for the legislature and it will be up to us to refine them.
If you have thoughts on any issue which comes before the legislature this year, please do not hesitate to call me. The best legislation involves a collaborative effort between representatives
and the people. If there is anything I can help you with, please contact me at 785-296-7653 or email me at John.Bradford@house.ks.gov.