I apologize for not getting a newsletter published last week, but I was feeling under the weather and decided to combine two weeks into one. This will make this newsletter slightly longer, but I hope you will find valuable information in the updates!
Last week we reached the midpoint of the session – turnaround! Despite the snowstorm that canceled schools again early this week, the legislature was able to meet albeit with some slight delays. It was good we were able to do so, as well, because of the very long list of bills we debated and voted on this week. You can view the entire list and all the roll call votes via the House Journals on www.kslegislature.org. Because we heard over 80 bills this week, I'm not including the normal vote tracker and will just highlight a few bills. The information for the additional bills can be found in the previous link in the House Journal.
As you review each piece of legislation, you’ll notice sometimes I tend to vote "No" on some legislation, more than a majority of my colleagues. I do this because I’m keeping a watchful eye on any legislation that isn’t necessary, expands government, takes away private property rights, increases taxes or fees, increases spending, limits our liberty, or creates new law when other current laws already cover the subject matter. If it does one or more of these things and doesn’t include a compelling reason for doing so, my inclination is to vote against the bill.
Unfortunately, several of the bills we voted on this week violated one of those tests. With that in mind, here are some of the major votes we took:
HB 2222 would amend current law related to school district policies on bullying. Current law defines “bullying” as an intentional gesture or threat creating an intimidating environment for a student or staff member. The bill would clarify the definition of bullying to mean any threat by a student, staff member, or parent toward a student or by any student, staff member, or parent toward a staff member. The bill would define “parent” to include a guardian, custodian, or other person with authority to act on behalf of a child. The bill would define “staff member” to mean any person employed by the school district. The bill would require these changes be reflected in the school districts’ policies and plans to address bullying.
I was the legislator responsible for "carrying" this bill on the floor which means I must explain the bill and why it is needed. Our Education committee heard of many instances that called for the clarifying language in this bill. I spoke in favor of this bill and was glad to do so as it simply clarified the definition of bullying to include staff and parents. An article in the Topeka Capital-Journal discussed this issue.
The bill passed 119-1 and I voted yes.
On Thursday, the House worked HB 2019 which reforms the judicial selection process of the Kansas Appeals Court. Because the Kansas Appeals Court is determined by statute, only a regular bill is needed, thus only requiring a majority to pass.
The current way appeals court judges are appointed is by a commission of 9 board members. This commission is made up of 4 non-attorneys appointed by the Governor, 4 members elected from each congressional district by attorneys admitted to the Kansas Bar, and a chairman elected at large by attorneys who are members of the Kansas Bar. Qualified electors for the nomination commission are the 10,000 attorneys across the state, however only about 3,000 actually vote. This means the current selection process consists of a small, unelected minority selecting judges for 2.8 million Kansans.
The commission accepts nominations of attorneys, interviews them, and selects 3 to submit to the Governor for his selection. If he chooses not to accept them, then the Supreme Court Chief Justice picks the nominee. This process has been criticized by many as not being democratic or representative of the state because the majority of the members who select the judges are the attorneys who appear before the judges. This creates a conflict of interest between those who select the judges and those who appear before them.
A positive step was made this week when the House passed HB 2019, proposing to eliminate the commission and instead replace it with a federal model of judicial selection. This model would include an appointment of judges by the Governor and confirmation of those judges by a vote of the Senate. I've heard that possible compromises between the current system and this bill are in the works, so I will keep you apraised of any developments.
The House passed HB 2019 by a vote of 73 to 50. I voted YES. The bill is now headed to the Senate for further consideration and action.
Regulatory Certainty for IP-Enabled Devices
This week, the House passed HB 2326 which would protect Internet Protocol (IP)-based services from regulation by the Kansas Corporations Commission (KCC). IP is the broadband technology of the future that is already being deployed to meet consumer demand for popular applications that connect them in their daily lives including e-mail, Netflix, and Skype. This legislation would protect Kansas companies investing in IP-based services from unnecessary regulation by state agencies and ensure that policy regarding these services is set by the legislature.
In the 1980’s, the Kansas Legislature passed laws protecting wireless communications from state regulation. As a result of being protected from KCC regulation, the wireless industry in Kansas continues to flourish. Currently, IP-based services are rapidly growing and investment dollars are pouring into these technologies. As it has done for the wireless companies, this protection would ensure the regulatory certainty these companies investing in IP technologies need to continue to invest and grow in Kansas.
The House passed HB 2326 by a vote of 123 to 0. The bill is now headed to the Senate for further consideration and action.
Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act
I was proud to support HB 2203 which would enact the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act. HB 2203 provides expanded protections to individuals by imposing a burden on the government to show, by clear and convincing evidence, that a government action that substantially burdens a person's exercise of religion is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interes. The Act would apply to all governmental action, including state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations, and policies, and to their implementation whether enacted or adopted before, on, or after the effective date of the Act.
The bill passed 109-14 and I voted YES.
Celebrate Freedom Week
HB 2280, as amended, would designate the week containing September 17 as “Celebrate Freedom Week,” during which public schools would be required to teach the history of the country’s founding with particular emphasis on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The bill would require religious references in the writings of the founding fathers could not be censored when presented as part of the instruction.
A firm understanding of our country, its founding, and the gift of freedom is something that I think has a lot of value. I support efforts to make this a focus for a short time each year.
This bill did pass 95-25 and I voted YES.
Increase Delinquent Registration Fees
HB 2311 proposed to increase a large list of delinquent registration fees. Even though the issue of delinquency made this bill a tougher case, increasing the fees by amounts that are five times their current rate is not something I could support. This legislation failed 24-99. I voted NO.
HB 2075 would expand the definition of "abandoned property" to include any residential real estate that has been unoccupied continuously by persons legally in possession for the preceding 180 days and that has a blighting influence on surrounding properties. It also would make several changes to the definition of "blighting influence." Abandoned properties rehabilitated under the act could be used for community development, in addition to housing, which is the only use currently allowed.
Any city would be authorized to file a petition with the district court for temporary possession of abandoned property in the same manner as currently authorized for non-profit organizations that improve housing. A city would have to designate an organization to rehabilitate the property.
You might recall that earlier in this newsletter, I discussed things I watch for in voting and one is a restriction on private property rights. This bill clearly is an attempt to do so, and violates that principle. There was some resistance to this bill, but in the end it passed 72-51. I voted NO.
Insurance Company Holding Act
Ever encroaching government is not a good thing, and that is why I was concerned with HB 2007, which would establish the Insurance Holding Company Act. You can read the supplemental note explaining the bill by clicking here. I am cautious about any legislation that grows government. In reviewing this bill, it provided the Insurance Commissioner several new powers while increasing some regulations as well. The bill passed 104-20, and I voted NO.
Second Counting of Military Students
HB 2109 would authorize a second count of military students on February 20 to determine the number of students enrolled in a school district to continue through the 2017-2018 school year. The authorization is set to expire at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. With military students there are 2 counts taken: Sept. 20 and Feb 20. The students that are new to a district since Sept 20 are counted on Feb. 20. The only problem is that the count does not take into consideration the number of students the district lost in that time. For example, a school could gain 250 students since Sept 20 but lose 200. That school gets paid for the 250 students gained for the whole year as well as the 200 for the whole year that they lost INSTEAD of being paid for the 50 net new students. I voted NO because I feel that is bad policy. While we need to fund our military students, we need to find a way that actually addresses the additional students and the actual cost of educating this population.
After voting on the items I described above, the legislature took a four-day break. This break allows staff to prepare for the second half of the session which began this past Wednesday. This made for a shorter week, but we did debate a couple important pieces of legislation which I highlight below.
As the mother of two boys and a former teacher, I am quite passionate about education. Some of the most intriguing education conversations are those of the topic of innovations in education. It is always amazing to hear of the some of the great things being done in classrooms across Kansas and the United States.
That is why I was so glad to see that the House passed HB 2319, a bill that would establish the Coalition of Innovative Districts Act. The bill would allow any school board of education to apply to the State Board of Education for authority to operate such district as a public innovative district. A public innovative district would be exempt from all laws, rules, and regulations applicable to school districts, except from those specified in the bill, including all laws governing the issuance of general obligation bonds by school districts, KPERS laws, and laws governing the election of local board of education members.
There would be an application process that districts would be required to follow in order to be authorized as an innovative district. Once two innovative districts have been established, the law would require the establishment of a coalition of innovative districts with the responsibility of approving no more than a total of ten public innovative districts in the state. Innovative districts would receive authorization for five school years before a renewal process would have to be completed.
The formation of innovative districts would allow for greater flexibility for Kansas school districts. It would give districts the ability to best meet their educational objectives by removing state regulation. Freedom from state restrictions would allow teaching professionals to focus on tailoring educational plans to students and not to regulation from Topeka.
The House passed HB 2319 by a vote of 74 to 47. The Senate also passed a similar bill and so it will be interesting to observe what the final product is.
School Funding Lawsuit Stayed
You might recall that in an early newsletter I discussed the Gannon school finance lawsuit. Last month, at the request of Governor Brownback, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed requests for mediation and a stay of the Gannon v. State school finance decision announced earlier this year. Last Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court granted mediation and issued a stay on the district court’s decision against the state in the lawsuit. Because the Supreme Court stayed the order and judgment of the lower court, the Supreme Court has officially decided that it will at some point hear the lawsuit.
The decision was made by a three-judge panel who stated that funding for public schools is unconstitutionally inadequate. The ruling calls for the Legislature to raise the Base State Aid Per Pupil (BSAPP) from $3,838 to $4,492 which would result in a cost of about $437 million dollars for state taxpayers. Often left out of the school finance discussion is that BSAPP amounts to only 30 percent of total school funding. Recent information put out by Education Week has indicated that Kansas’ Per Pupil Expenditure (PPE) is more than $12,500. What accounts for this divergence between BSAPP, one piece of the piece, and the $12,500? In a word, weightings. Basically, the school finance formula takes into account a slew of other factors to inflate enrollment numbers, such as the number qualified for free lunches (designated at-risk), transportation, bilingual education, etc.
Like many government-calculated formulas, this ends up producing some results which are skewed. For example, currently there are 456,000 student enrolled in schools statewide. However, because of the weightings, the state actually funds the equivalent of 783,877 students. The weighted number is used in the formula to calculate Base State Aid Per Pupil. Considering that, the very label “Base State Aid Per Pupil” is misleading because it’s not based on the actual number of students in classrooms.
Specifically to Shawnee Mission, it sets up a system where despite the fact SMSD has a nearly identical level of funding as Olathe, SMSD receives quite a bit less in funding. This is why continuing to dump money into the current formula is suicide for that district. We simply must pursue reforms. A more accurate representation of the amount of money spent per pupil can be found simply by taking the total number of students divided by total school spending. That number is $12,656 per student in spending on average statewide.
In his State of the State address at the beginning of the session, Governor Brownback asked the legislature to merge the Kansas Turnpike Authority (KTA) with the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) in order to allow for greater efficiencies to be made and to help in reducing the size of state government. The House, in an effort to assist the governor in forcing more cooperation between the two agencies, debated HB 2234, a bill that would expand the authority for KTA and KDOT to contract with each other.
The original bill that was introduced in committee would have reflected more closely a merger of KTA with KDOT because the Secretary of Transportation would have served as the chief executive officer and chairperson of the KTA. However, HB 2234 was amended in committee to remove this provision, retaining the current governance of the KTA board. Even though the version of HB 2234 brought to the floor included this amendment, it would take actions to minimize duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment in operation and maintenance, including the temporary transfer of personnel, property, and equipment from KTA to KDOT and from KDOT to KTA.
The bill that was passed out of committee and came to the floor would have allowed for contracts between KDOT and KTA to provide resources in addition to personnel and equipment from KDOT, contractors, and KTA for construction, operation, and maintenance of turnpike projects and highways of the state. However, an amendment offered on the House floor was adopted which would restrict the ability for KDOT, contractors, and KTA to contract with each other to provide construction, operation, and maintenance to projects not to exceed ten miles which connect the turnpike to the highways of the state.
Thank you for taking time to review this week’s newsletter. Committees will continue to meet this week and next where we will be hearing bills that have passed from the Senate. Committees must be finished by March 22, so there is a lot of work to do in the next few weeks. As always, please ask any question that you may have, and I'll do my best to answer them.