With the Kansas Legislature set to reconvene Monday, The Telegram reached out to several area state lawmakers to get a feel for their positions and expectations for the upcoming session.
Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City; House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton; Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City; Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin; and Rep. Stephen Alford, R-Ulysses, all shared their thoughts on topics ranging from the Supreme Court’s refutation of the education formula, to their prediction of what the governor’s state budget might look like.
The Kansas Supreme Court struck down a school funding formula crafted by the Legislature in October in efforts to meet the court standard of state constitutionality. This year, lawmakers will have until April 30 to make the case for whatever plan they come up with, but state attorneys want a bill in less than 60 days.
Many lawmakers were expecting Gov. Sam Brownback to be gone by now, having been nominated by President Donald Trump in July to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. But without confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Brownback intends to deliver the State of the State Address next week and at least for now, will lead the state into 2018.
Those are just some of the hot topics at the opening of a session that Jennings said could be "the toughest one we've had."
What will the biggest legislative topics be in 2018?
Doll: It will be the education finance because we’re talking about 55 percent of the budget. We’re talking about court litigation. So without question, that’s going to be the biggest issue.
Wheeler: It’s primarily going to be financial. A huge issue is school funding. We still have issues with regard to our prison systems, our roads, our state hospital at Osawatomie, and all of those are money issues. I keep saying that there is movement about to put forward a proposed constitutional amendment, restricting the powers of the Supreme Court over school finance. I don’t know how far that will go.
Jennings: Public education funding, I think, would be the No. 1 item. Coming in and following that would be public employees’ retirement system stability in the long-term, and other public safety and social service issues. We have a court case that has suggested our funding for education is at an unconstitutional level. We’ll need to respond to that Gannon decision. We have a long-term unfunded liability with KPERS that contemplates under the current law that we will escalate payments going forward at a substantial rate that is likely unsustainable with the revenue stream that’s available.
Hineman: The big topic, the big issue that we have to wrestle with is school funding, because the state Supreme Court on Oct. 2 issued a ruling declaring the recently passed school finance formula as unconstitutional and the level funding that we provided as being inadequate. Those are issues that we must deal with, and the Supreme Court has given us a pretty short timeframe to come to a resolution on that. Because it involves probably a pretty significant amount of money, a lot of the other issues that we will be considering will be interlinked with the issue of school funding.
Alford: I think it will be the funding of education, and the reason is because of a court decision that we have to put together something that the courts will approve from the Legislature.
What topics are flying under the radar that you think deserve more attention?
Doll: With the election coming up in the fall of this year, there’s not going to be a whole lot of heavy lifting done. ... Other than the education issue, there’s going to be people throwing darts back and forth, but for the most part, the heavy lifting, I thought, was done last session and will be done next session when we have a new governor and however many new representatives. ... One of the things that I think is very important to western Kansas is that we need to expand Medicaid. If we don’t, our rural hospitals, which I have one in nearly every one of my 10 counties, they rely on that. The communities themselves rely on those hospitals, both for health care and for economic reasons. If those hospitals leave, they will not come back, which will have an impact on downtown, for the people buying goods at that particular store, the tax revenue and such. ... Another issue that’s important to me is transportation. We must keep our highway infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure sound.
Wheeler: I am joining with several other legislators, including Rep. Jennings, to create an amendment to our manslaughter crime here in Kansas, specifically people who kill while driving either when their license is suspended or revoked — the penalty will be more harsh. That is something that I think as a former prosecutor has deserved attention for quite some time. ... But there is, I am going to assume, going to be some discussion somewhere of the problematic sexual harassment at the Statehouse, or in state government I should say. I concur with Rep. Schwab that it’s not a pervasive, overriding problem, but if it’s existing there it has to be addressed.
Jennings: I have introduced, pre-filed a bill relating to involuntary manslaughter concerning those who operate a vehicle while under the influence, are involved in a crash that results in a death, and they are operating a vehicle at a time, that as a result of a prior DUI conviction, their privilege to drive was either suspended, revoked or under some restriction. They violated those terms and impositions on their driving privileges. This bill will enhance the penalty. So if you drive outside the scope of period, either you’re driving when you shouldn’t be driving or you’re driving in violation of restrictions such as an interlock system, and then you have a DUI-related crash — a more substantial penalty. I will very soon be introducing a bill with respect to retirement benefits for corrections officers in an effort to enhance those benefits. That’s an effort towards retention and recruitment of corrections officers, which has been problematic.
Hineman: My job as majority leader is to make sure the system works as it is supposed to and works efficiently, and a good part of that involves allocating issues to committees and letting the committees work through the issues and hopefully produce legislation as a result to be considered by the entire House. So to the extent I have some issues that I would like to see us work on, I have been suggesting those to other colleagues and asking them to take the lead on those so I can focus on the duties of my office... There are some things I think we need to do, but I don’t want to get too out in front of the conversation on those issues, so I’d prefer not to go any further right now.
Alford: I think KanCare is another issue, also the foster care taskforce.
What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s refutation of the state’s school funding formula?
Doll: I thought the money that we gave them was adequate. Equitable, no. I thought some money needed to be moved around — transportation, special ed, those sort of things. I thought that we made a good forth effort. I thought we were going to come back and address it, but I didn’t think we were going to have to address as much money as they say we’re going to address. The word I hear is anywhere between 400 million and 600 million more dollars. I think that’s a very high number, and to be quite frank, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to come up with that kind of money. I think that we have to sit down with school officials and be able to say, "show us where we can come up with this money." Our income since we overrode the governor’s veto and changed the tax brackets has been really, really good. My optimistic side tells me that hopefully we can promise the schools we’ll put an additional whatever number, $150 million, $200 million for the next four years additional to what we put in... For us to be able to come up with one-time money, let’s say it’s $500 million, I have absolutely no idea how we’ll be able to come up with that kind of money without some huge, huge sacrifices that would probably not be good for the people of Kansas. I was in education for 20 years. We’ve been underfunding them for so long. Our schools are ranked 14th in the country in performance — 14th, that’s pretty good. But our teachers are ranked 42nd in pay. That’s embarrassing.
Wheeler: I thought our funding was sufficient. I am not surprised by the result because we had no idea how much the court expected, which is the problem area of the court’s involvement, is if they rule it unconstitutional as they have done this last time, we don’t know the amount that makes it so. And because we have such serious problems in the state, we don’t want to overfund just to satisfy the schools and the court. But we also don’t want to underfund. But we’re just told it’s unconstitutional — no amount given. I’m aware that the state order of education and the plaintiff’s attorneys are asking for another $600 million. I don’t know where that’s going to come from. I thought our formula was good, it was strong, and I think we addressed the issues of at-risk children all the way across the state. Right now we have an interim committee working on trying to put together a funding formula with an amount, but I haven’t seen that they’ve come up with any results. The only thing I’ve really seen so far… is amending the constitution. But amending the constitution, if that would ever happen, won’t address Fitz’s judgment. We still have to comply with the order of the court.
Jennings: First, I think we need to find a solution to school finance that breaks the cycle of litigation in order to ensure we meet the expectations of the people of Kansas for school funding. I don’t know that I can say on a personal level with certainty that schools are either adequately or inadequately funded. The court has certainly suggested that funding doesn’t meet the constitutional requirement, and that’s the state of the law today. They are the court of last resort for that determination in Kansas, and we will need to respond likely with additional funding, and I guess I’m hopeful that whatever funding is necessary can be done over a series of incremental increases over several years so that we can do so within existing revenue streams and also strengthen the accountability piece for public education to assure that the resources that are expended are demonstrating the improved outcomes for students.
Hineman: I believe the Supreme Court regarded the school finance formula as fairly close to constitutional. The largest issues they raised regarding the formula had to do with equity, and they spelled out in pretty good detail what the shortfalls were in that regard. So we know what we need to do to fix the school finance formula. That will be fairly simple to write the bill. Gathering up political support to get it passed may be a little tougher. But I think we can, and I think we will get there on refining the formula to ensure that it’s constitutional. The other question is the really big question of how much money is appropriate... The choices that we have were really illustrated pretty starkly last month when the interim K-12 school finance committee examined both funding options and also the option of budget cuts to come up with roughly $600 million if we couldn’t find additional funding options. Frankly, both options are pretty distasteful. As you know, the 2017 Legislature raised income taxes roughly $600 million a year. We did that because collectively we had concluded that it had to be done to correct the fiscal imbalance in state government... At this point, I think the people of Kansas understand and accept what we did, but that doesn’t mean the people of Kansas are ready for us to double down and do it again and pass another $600 million increase this next year. That’s really not very viable.
Alford: I just don’t have an answer for that whole question, because there are so many variables in that. I think that’s the big question that we’ve got to answer. I think probably a good answer is come up with something that’s reasonable, that basically satisfies the court’s decision but also satisfies the ability of what we can afford for education.
What are you expecting from Brownback’s budget proposal this year?
Doll: Not much actually. If I had to predict, first he’s going to want a constitutional amendment that schools can’t be shut down, to defy the courts. That’s one of the things he’s going to bring up in the proposal. He’s going to tell us how if we were given more time how his tax experiment would have worked, which, that’s fairy tale. We gave it five years. It was failing miserably. If we’d given any more time, we were just digging a deeper hole. We did what we had to do last year. So I’m not sure what direction he’s going to take us. He’s in a very difficult position. He turned a lot of his governor authority over to Lt. Gov. Colyer. Now he’s reining it back in. He let go of a lot of his staff. They went and found other jobs because he was anticipating not being here this session. And the lieutenant governor hired staff, and it’s a very awkward position for the governor to be in. Gov. Brownback is a great man. His tenure as governor hasn’t been stellar.
Wheeler: I don’t know what to expect. We only found out in the last couple days that he’s going to be giving the budget, where he’s already giving the State of the State presenting his budget. I’m sorry, but this is a confusing time. Everybody has been looking to Colyer and waiting to see what he’s going to do. And now all of the sudden we’re back to Brownback, and all of our experience with him is cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. So probably more of the same. But it’s just my guess.
Jennings: I have no expectations with respect to the governor’s budget proposal. I have not visited with the governor about what he intends to propose, and I am no longer willing to even guess what it is he might have proposed. We’ll see what he has to say, and then we will react to whatever he recommends.
Hineman: I really don’t know. I believe it’s going to be somewhat of a hybrid budget because everyone, including both Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, assumed by now that Sam would be appointed to the position in Washington, D.C., that he had been nominated for and that Jeff Colyer would be governor. That timetable has been slowed down pretty dramatically, so Gov. Brownback will continue to serve possibly through the end of the legislative session. But with regard to the budget, I don’t really have any clue as to what it will contain, but Speaker (Ron) Ryckman and I have a record of working closely with Gov. Brownback. I’ve developed a good working relationship with Lt. Gov. Colyer, so regardless of what’s in the budget and regardless of who occupies the office of governor, we’ll do what we can to work together toward solutions on the budget.
Alford: I’ll just have to wait and see what it really is, what his proposals really are. We run on a two-year budget anyway, so there will be some modifications there, but probably one of them is I don’t know what his answer is going to be for education, what he’s thinking. The other project that we’ve kind of got to look at is basically the new prison facility.
How do you think the new tax bill passed by Congress will affect health care in Kansas? The Congressional Budget Office has anticipated that as many as 13 million fewer Americans will have health insurance. How do you think those numbers will manifest in Kansas?
Doll: I think it will manifest quite a lot. Your lower middle class and your lower class will be a lot harder up. I understand there’s going to be serious cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, which impacts our population in Kansas. We’re an aging population. We have serious brain drain. All of our young people are moving away. We don’t have things to keep them here, so we’re an aging population. You start cutting Medicaid, Medicare, I think we’re going to be hurt as bad as any state in the country, honestly. You look at the tax cuts, what they say it’s going to add to the deficit, $1.4 trillion? ... And while it sounds good to your average Joe guy on the street, it sounds like a great idea, there are going to be other services that they’re not aware of that are going to be cut, and one of those seriously is going to be health care.
Wheeler: I think it will. Our funding for CHIP is still not resolved for the underprivileged children, and if that falls out at the federal level, which it hasn’t completely yet — they just haven’t done anything and haven’t renewed it — then of course we’re going to have to pick that up in the states. And we don’t really have the money for that. I think taking away the mandate will result in the failure of the Affordable Care Act because it can’t be sustained financially without mandating that everybody have coverage.
Jennings: It’s hard to say. Certainly there is some indication there will be a greater number of people in Kansas without health insurance coverage. That has a serious negative implication for rural hospitals because the number of uninsured will increase that show up at emergency rooms, and that will have likely a negative impact on Kansas health care.
Hineman: I don’t know yet what the effect might be in Kansas. There are some entities within the state that have been very good at providing reliable, unbiased information regarding health care and insurance in the state of Kansas. And I haven’t yet seen an analysis from those groups, so we’ll wait and see what the effect is. There will be an effect. I think we should also, all of us, prepare for the possibility of increasing interest rates, which have an effect on individuals and the economy and directly the state, as well.
Alford: It’s really kind of hard for me to answer that question. There are going to be some people that are going to get caught again. That’s one of the things that has ben really confusing is basically the Obamacare deal. I think if the costs go up, and that’s what they say — the cost is going to go up — more and more people will drop out. Of course, they’ve done away with the requirement of having to have health insurance. There will be some people that drop that because of the old one will be understanding the deductibles are so high to the point that it’s not like having any health insurance at all, but yet paying for health insurance.
If Colyer steps in for Brownback, do you think there will be a significant impact on the legislative session?
Doll: Well, it depends when that happens. I would have said yes if Lt. Colyer was giving the State of the State [Address], but he’s not. We don’t know if the governor gets his ambassadorship in March, the train has left the station a long time ago. There can’t be a major shift. The later that we get into the session and Gov. Brownback is the governor — that’s just weird to say — the more the policy is going to stay the same. Gov. Brownback is giving the State of the State, and that’s the executive branch’s direction to the Legislature where they want us to go. It would put Lt. Gov. Colyer in a very awkward situation.
Wheeler: First, I think it’s moot because Brownback I don’t think is going to be re-nominated. I think he’ll finish out his term. Secondly, if it were to be Colyer, the only way we’d know the tone would be from what he says in the State of the State, the budget that he presents, and, most importantly, who he would pick as lieutenant governor. If he picks somebody of the same ilk as Gov. Brownback, it’s going to be a problematic session. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Jennings: Yes, there will be. I think that the lieutenant governor has articulated consistently since the original announcement of Gov. Brownback’s offer of appointment by the president that he will be open to a more in-depth and broader dialogue around issues seeking consensus-building I believe at a higher level than what we’ve experienced in the past several years.
Hineman: Every governor brings their own management style to the job, and as I’ve mentioned, Lt. Gov. Colyer has worked to develop a relationship with me, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning for a year now. So I’ve grown very comfortable with him, gotten more familiar with him, and I’m looking forward to serving under Gov. Colyer if and when that comes to pass.
Alford: I don’t think it will be that much of a change. I think it will probably be pretty constant. We haven’t really seen how Colyer will react and what he has in mind. I keep thinking they’ve been working together pretty close. I don’t think there will be that much of a change in attitudes.
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.