This past week a delegation from the Ophthamology department at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KU EYE) visited the Capitol. On the House floor, we recognized KU EYE for their 100 years of "educating tomorrow's generation, caring for today's"! Thank you to the KU EYE group for giving me the opportunity to celebrate with you! The picture above is of the delegation from KU EYE.
The Kansas legislative session is finally picking up steam! While the first 4 weeks moved at a slower pace in terms of floor activity with most of the work done in committees and few bills making it to the House floor. The last two weeks have been packed full of activity, and that will continue this week. This week is the halfway point of the session. Turnaround week marks the deadline for non-exempt bills to be passed from one chamber to the other.
Below, I will address a number of bills we have voted on the past few weeks. If you have any specific legislation you have questions about, feel free to contact me.
HB 2303 – Non Judicial Court Employee Raises
One bill we voted on a few weeks ago was on nonjudicial court employee raises, found in bill HB 2303.
Last session, the bill passed both the House and the Senate but was placed in a conference committee because of amendments that the Senate made to the bill. The conference committee, made up of designees from the House and Senate, reconciled the differences in the two different versions of the bill and the Senate voted to adopt the committee’s report. However, because of timing last session, the House was unable to vote on the report until this session.
As agreed to by the conference committee, HB 2303 increases license reinstatement fees for the first and subsequent occurrences of driving under the influence (DUI) convictions. A portion of the revenue raised from the reinstatement fees will go to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) for purchasing breathalyzer equipment. Most significantly though, the bill also designates 33 percent of the revenues to go to the Judicial Branch’s Nonjudicial Salary Adjustment Fund in order to provide raises to nonjudicial court employees who have not received a pay increase for several years.
By generating the revenues for these raises through fees, the State General Fund (SGF) is not impacted. Thus, HB 2303 allows the state to provide raises to these hard-working and dedicated employees without an additional appropriation being made in the state’s already strained budget. Our courts would not be able to function without the hard work of these employees. For this reason, directing a portion of this fee fund to raises for them is certainly merited.
The House passed the conference committee report for HB 2303 on Wednesday, January 22nd by a vote of 109-11. I voted yes.
Insurance for Qualified Professional Associations
The House passed legislation that will give more professional and trade associations in Kansas the ability to offer their members alternatives to fully-insured health plans, exempting them from the jurisdiction of the Kansas Insurance Commissioner. HB 2668 amends the current law to level the playing field by providing all associations - and employers who belong to these associations - an alternative to consider when it comes to managing their health care costs. Preliminary estimates show more than 350,000 Kansans would be eligible for coverage under a self-funded association health plan.
The federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) would continue to mandate what the minimum plan design must be for these health plans. Also, pre-existing conditions would still be covered and employers would still be required to offer compliant plans at an affordable cost in order to avoid penalties. Although these plans must comply with the above ACA mandates, they can avoid some aspects of the ACA that will likely cause rates for health plans to rise. For example, employers have more flexibility in the plan design for a self-funded plan than they do with a fully-insured plan.
Self-funded association plans allow employer groups to share in the times of good and to limit exposure in bad. With stop-loss coverage in place for self-funded plans, the maximum costs are relatively the same as with fully-insured plans. However, self-funding is not without risk and associations will have to determine whether these plans are best suited for them.
The House passed HB 2668 on Friday, February 21st by a vote of 114-7. I voted yes.
Modernization of State Business Law
This week the legislature took a step in modernizing the state’s business law by updating our Limited Liability Company Act. HB 2398 recognizes that the use of modern technology is important for the purposes of conducting annual and special meetings. This update to the law will help businesses, large and small, throughout the state of Kansas. It will allow Kansas to be competitive with the state of Delaware, which is known to be the gold standard in business law. Our focus remains on creating a stronger economy which provides more job opportunities by having laws that let companies and individuals know our state is open for business.
This is a good example of a bill which receives little attention yet achieves quite a bit on behalf of Kansans. This bill – not those which are introduced yet have no chance of passing – is what should draw the attention of the press but does not.
The House passed HB 2398 on Friday, February 21st by a vote of 120-1. I voted yes.
For many victims, a conviction against the defendant is only the beginning of the healing process. For many victims, the effects last long after the court case has been closed. Many times, especially in domestic violence cases, it is important for victims to know when offenders are to be released. However, current law keeps release dates, work programs and custody changes unavailable. In an effort to give local authorities more tools to help victims, the definition of what information is protected would exclude these provisions. The Department of Corrections testified in favor HB 2502 as a way of helping keep victims informed in the process.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is in charge of the monitoring and data repository program and ensures that local authorities have the latest information available to keep victims in their local jurisdiction updated.
The House passed HB 2502 on Thursday, February 20th by a vote of 123-0
During the 2013 session, the legislature passed a two year budget that makes appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 and FY 2015. Rather than passing a one year budget as had been normally done, the legislature passed a two year budget in an effort to better address budget challenges up front. The budget passed last session makes state government more efficient and leaves the state fiscally sound by holding an ending balance of $515.6 million in FY 2014 and $331.5 million in FY 2015. However, the governor vetoed, in its entirety, the FY 2015 corrections budget because it contained $8 million less than his initial request.
On February 13, the House passed a revised FY 2015 corrections budget which spends $360 million from the State General Fund (SGF).
During the floor debate on Wednesday, there were a handful of amendments considered by the House. According to the pay-go rule, any amendment that spends additional money is required to eliminate an expenditure of equal amount from somewhere else in the budget.
Only one amendment was added and the House passed House Substitute for SB 245 on Thursday, February 13th by a vote of 79-41. I voted yes.
When the Board of Regents universities go out to purchase various insurance plans the only plans which are available to them to purchase are from companies which are Kansas admitted insurers. Currently, there are very few Kansas licensed insurance companies which are large enough to underwrite the risk profile of the schools. This bill would amend the Kansas statute regarding insurance purchases to allow the universities to shop for plans in other states. Universities estimate that if they were able to shop around for other plans they could cut their premiums by at least $550,000, a savings of 20 percent.
HB 2470 passed the House 120-0. I voted yes.
The other issue dealing with the Board of Regents involved online learning, sometimes called distance learning. With the popularity of online learning and its rapid growth, so has the administrative burden of the universities. Currently, universities must independently set up articulation agreements with schools where the distance learning student resides. To help reduce this cost, the state will enter into a reciprocity agreement which would allow the programs to be accepted without an individual school-to-school agreement. University administrators believe this would be a huge cost and time saving and would still allow for the Board of Regents to oversee the program.
HB 2544 passed the House 120-0. I voted yes.
Religious Liberty – HB 2453
I know many are concerned with HB 2453, the bill the House passed which intends to protect the religious liberty of Kansans, specifically religious organizations and private businesses, concerning marriage in Kansas. While this bill has received a great deal of media attention and consternation, the bill’s intent is in response to a number of cases around the country in which both religiously-affiliated organizations and businesses have faced punitive government action or lawsuits because they refused to perform services related to a same-sex wedding, in direct conflict with their religious beliefs.
This bill has urgency because the Kansas Marriage Amendment, passed by the voters in 2005 with 70% of the vote, may be struck down, which could set off a cascading series of events that would impact the religious liberty of Kansans. Currently within the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals resides an appeal of district court decisions of both the Oklahoma and Utah State Constitutional Amendment protecting traditional marriage. Kansas is part of the 10th Circuit. When a Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision, that decision serves a binding precedent for all the districts within its appellate jurisdiction, unless or until such time as that decision is overturned or a stay is issued by the Supreme Court of the United States. If the 10th Circuit affirms the district court opinions finding that the United States Constitution prohibits amendments protecting traditional marriage, Kansas will immediately be subject to the ruling with it also overturning our Constitutional Amendment. While there is not yet a time-table for when the 10th Circuit plans to issue a ruling in either the Utah or Oklahoma case, the court has requested all briefs to be submitted by April of this year.
Should our marriage amendment be struck down, marriage licenses would immediately be issued to same-sex couples, which would then raise questions of religious liberty. The key question is should government force anyone to perform an action he or she believes to be wrong as a matter of sincerely held religious belief -- not only demanding that the service be performed, but even forcing those who find it wrong to perform it?
For those who question the need for this bill, there are a few cases I’d like to highlight in other states that have drawn attention in which private businesses and religious organizations have faced lawsuit or government punishment for refusing to perform services related to endorsing same-sex marriage:
These are very difficult issues for all, and regardless of the final passage of this bill, the line of religious liberty in these situations will have to be determined. I believe the religious liberty of these business owners and these faith organizations should be protected and that was my intent in voting for HB 2453.
- A florist in Richland, Wash., who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding launched a countersuit against the state attorney general, who sued her for violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
- A judge ruled against a baker in Colorado, despite acknowledging his religious beliefs, for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. The judge has ordered him to bake cakes for same-sex couples who request it in the future.
- The owners of a Christian bakery who refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, after they were found guilty of violating the couple’s civil rights for refusing to bake a cake for their gay wedding. The bakery has actually closed their shop.
- A New Mexico photographer was sued for refusing to perform services at the commitment ceremony of a lesbian couple. The women, who hired another photographer, filed a discrimination complaint against Ms. Huguenin’s studio, Elane Photography. So far, the studio has lost in the courts. The photographer is appealing to the United States Supreme Court.
- In 2012, a New Jersey judge ruled against a Christian retreat house, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, that refused to allow a same-sex civil union ceremony to be conducted on its premises, ruling the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.”
However, as with all legislation, HB 2453 will and should receive full examination and likely amendments to clarify its intent and not result in any unintended consequences. In this case, I am aware the authors are open to such suggestions to ensure the bill is narrow in focus. I concur with attempts to narrow it to focus on situations similar to the above cases, and not have it be any broader than that.
As with all issues, I respect those on all sides of the marriage debate as well as the religious liberty question. I welcome respectful and well thought out feedback.
Other Items of Note
Jobs Increasing, Unemployment is decreasing
Kansas is making significant progress towards job growth:
January Revenues above Estimates
- The Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL) reported Monday that the December seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, down from 5.1 percent in November and down from 5.5 percent in December 2012.
- Kansas gained 10,100 seasonally adjusted private sector jobs, an increase of 0.9 percent since last December, and 10,000 non-farm jobs, an increase of 0.7 percent. This marks the first time since 2008 that the state’s unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent.
- Since Governor Brownback took office in January 2011, there has been an increase of 49,400 private sector jobs in Kansas. This week’s labor report is further evidence that pro-growth economic policies are working for Kansas. After a decade of lost jobs, Kansas is now one of the top ten states in the nation for jobs.
Suprising some, January tax receipts released Friday were $16.8 million more than expected, putting the state $21.1 million above estimates for FY 2014. Revenue receipts for three key economic indicators beat projections for January, further indicating that Kansas’ economy continues to grow. Corporate income tax receipts finished the month 225 percent more than expected, or $11.2 million, while use tax receipts ended $5.7 million, or 16 percent above estimates. Individual income tax receipts were $4.5 million more than expected.
In the next few weeks, we will see much work on a great many issues ranging from education related topics, continued work on a supplemental budget, judicial and corrections bills, and many more. As always, I look forward to your feedback!