News from Topeka- January 27, 2013
Why Rules Are Important - Week Two Newsletter
We’ve reached the end of our second week of the session and our schedule couldn’t be more jam-packed! With a goal of ending the session in 80 days (down from 90+ in past years), things are moving along at a faster pace than normal.

Most legislation is still in the committee process. Some is now just reaching the floor. As it does, I will be informing you of my votes. Below, I have laid out my thoughts on a couple high-profile topics.

Before I do that, however, I want to discuss my reaction to this week’s biggest activity – the passage of our joint rules. In my view, the rules were partially a good thing, but also disappointing in what they did not include.

Joint Rules
The joint rules, which govern how we conduct ourselves internally throughout the legislative session, are often viewed as largely a formality, so some may wonder why they can be so hotly debated, at times. The reason is that rules impact how you vote on bills and also what you’re voting on. They largely answer the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” questions of the legislative process.

The most positive part of the rules was the adoption of “Pay Go”, which says that an amendment to an appropriations bill must be no worse than neutral in how it impacts the budget – an amendment may cut spending, but one that adds spending must also cut spending in another area of the budget. Given the amendment process has been used to add ornaments to the “Christmas tree” in years past, this is a great way of ensuring spending is kept under control.

However, another area of legislating that has been abused in the past has been the practice of bundling several bills into one bill. An amendment to the rules was brought by Rep. Rubin to limit bundles to just two bills, which would have minimized this practice. Unfortunately, that amendment failed.

This was quite troubling to me, as this practice has several consequences:

  • Too often legislators, particularly those who weren’t part of the particular committee forwarding the bundle of bills, aren’t familiar with each bill in the “bundle”. Thus they end up sometimes not completely sure what they’re voting on. This isn’t healthy.
  • Related to this, Kansans trying to follow our legislative process can also become confused about exactly what’s being debated due to the shifting bill numbers, etc. This should be minimized.

  • Though the bills are usually related in some degree, that doesn’t constitute being of the same subject being addressed. As such, bundling puts many legislators in the bind of whether to vote yes or no on bundled bills which contained legislation they had both supported and opposed together in the one bundled package. Of course, this can happen in one particular bill, but it would be curtailed greatly if bundling of several bills were not allowed.
Despite the failure of the amendment to the rules, it is my hope that we will try to limit this practice as much as possible, even if it isn’t banned. One way to do this is to not hesitate to send bundled bills back to conference committee if we feel they should be separated by the way of a nonconcur with the conference committee report.

There was also an amendment to the rules offered that would have concluded debate on any given day at 11 pm and guaranteed a 10-hour off period. I was disappointed to see it fail, as well, and I voted yes on this amendment. Though I am a night owl, most legislators are not particularly when many end up getting up around 4-5 a.m. That’s practical reality, and we shouldn’t have legislators voting on major legislation when they are extremely tired. This would also prevent the clock being used as an agent for debate – legislators voting for something to pass simply so they can go home. I also believe the legislature should be as family friendly as possible.

Finally, an amendment that wasn’t offered would have provided every “division” vote be recorded. That would provide greater transparency and not allow individual legislators to hide their votes on division that can often shape legislation. We shouldn’t be afraid of any vote we take, and the public shouldn’t be required to “guess” who voted yes or no on a particular item. They should all be recorded. I would have supported this amendment.

Despite these amendments not making it, I will be voting for the rules package on Final Action while advocating for these changes in future rules.

Major Issues
Though we have yet to vote on any major legislation, this has not stopped several issues from being very hot topics as they make their way through the committee process.

Tax Reform The Governor has proposed a major tax package that would continue to lower state income tax rates while eliminating the deduction for mortgage interest and property taxes. It would also keep the current sales tax rate where it is, at 6.3%, rather than reverting back to 5.7%, which it is schedule to on July 1. The lowering of income tax rates is part of an overall effort to eventually eliminate the income tax in Kansas.

On the overall tax package, I am currently studying it though it is still a proposal and hasn't been entered the committee process. However, I am opposed to retaining the sales tax at 6.3% -- the legislature promised Kansans the .6% increase was temporary when it passed it in 2010 and it should be maintained as temporary.

Thank you for the input you have provided, thus far, on the tax package. I encourage you to keep writing and let me know your thoughts.

Judicial Reform
Did you know the Kansas method for judicial election is the only one of its kind in the country? It is somewhat like a few other states, but its nominating commission is configured differently. Whenever there is a vacancy in the Kansas Supreme Court or Kansas Court of Appeals, the Judicial Nominating Commission convenes. This is a 9-member commission of which a majority is appointed by attorneys with no accountability to the people. This commission then forwards three names to the Governor who must select among the three. If the governor does not choose one of the three, the decision goes to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

This system cries out for reform, as we cannot simply have a system where one of our three branches is controlled by an interest group. Various alternatives to this system have been proposed. The most prominent of the proposals is a system based on the federal model, where the Governor would make a selection and that pick would be subject to Senate confirmation. A change to the Supreme Court selection process requires a constitutional amendment, which must pass both the House and Senate and is subject to a vote of the people most likely in August or November of 2014.

Attorneys, of course, would still have full ability to give input on this selection, particularly in regards to qualifications and experience. However, now the system would be controlled by the people through their elected officials, and thus be transparent and accountable.

As reform proposals are debated on the floor, I will be providing further updates.

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