A SECOND OPINION, The Wichita Eagle
A report card for any Kansas legislative session this time of year is incomplete with a wrap-up session approaching.
The problem this year is the incomplete grade may still be appropriate once lawmakers wrap up the wrap-up.
The $500 million school-funding fix signed into law by Gov. Jeff Colyer — with an $80 million fix coming after some quick math went awry — will go to the Kansas Supreme Court later in the spring, after legislators head home wondering if their work — half a billion over five years to come into compliance with the Court’s funding edict — is done.
Conservative lawmakers think the new funding figure is too much. Many Democrats think the Court will kick the new price tag back to the Statehouse as inadequate. There’s really no way to tell how the Court will rule. Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Thursday asked for an extension before addressing the Court on how the formula was reached.
But as the Legislature plays one waiting game, the wrap-up session that begins Thursday has several items to be decided.
The state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group on Friday released a revenue estimate of $533.8 million more than projected five months ago. A low estimate would have given lawmakers more concern on how to reach a 2019 budget, but Friday extended a string of upward estimates.
Many areas of state government are asking for more funding, often times to get back to amounts before prior cuts. Higher education is still smarting from 2016 cuts. The Department for Children and Families, a Colyer priority, has asked for a $16.5-million increase over two years. Most would go to hiring more social workers and staff, which would help combat rising criticism over agency performance in recent high-profile cases.
Friday’s higher revenue estimation doesn’t eliminate competition for money, but it eases concerns on having to raises revenue (taxes) from other sources. It could, however, spur conservative lawmakers to fight harder for a change to state tax code that would allow taxpayers to itemize deductions when they don’t on a federal return. One estimate says $141 million could be lost in revenue next year.
The Senate has passed the bill that’s now in the House. It’s a risk to approve such a revenue loss when it’s unclear if revenue estimates will continue to be encouraging.
A controversial adoption measure is hung up in the House. The Senate has passed the bill that would allow adoption and foster-care agencies to refuse placement to gay and lesbian couples based on religious beliefs. The House voted it down but may be open to a compromise.
Expansion of Medicaid, which could cover the gap for 150,000 Kansans between federal health-care exchange coverage and KanCare, the state’s privatized version of Medicaid, didn’t get off the ground during the session. That’s unlike 2017, when both chambers passed expansion bills only to have it vetoed by former Gov. Sam Brownback.
There seems to be no inclination to try again during the wrap-up session, a disappointment since federal funds supply 90 percent of expansion’s cost and so many more residents would be covered.
And where’s all that transparency we were promised? After the Kansas City Star’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist series on secret government in Kansas, legislators promised more accountability and transparency.
Talk is cheap. The Star reported that of the 19 bills introduced with the goal of greater accountability, two have been signed into law. Police must report what they seize in forfeiture cases and people who attempt to influence the executive branch on contracts must sign as lobbyists.
Two more could be signed by Colyer, but nine bills received no hearing. “Gut-and-go” stripping of bills is still popular. So is lawmakers refusing to put their names on legislation.
Maybe next year for greater transparency. Probably not.
Seven days of a wrap-up session will be as important as three-plus months of the regular session. Then Kansans wait for a decision from the state Supreme Court, which will either rule the Legislature completed its work or needs to go back for another try.