Legislators address multiple issues at Garden City Chamber's coffee

2/16/2014

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Legislators who attended Saturday's first Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee said lawmakers in Topeka seem to be waiting for the shoe to drop in the form of a state Supreme Court decision on education funding.

State Reps. John Doll, Russ Jennings and Don Hineman, and state Sen. Larry Powell attended the morning forum at St. Catherine Hospital.

Jennings said this session seems slow to get going, despite having a number of bills carried over from last session. The House has passed six or seven bills, but nothing he would consider important.

The slow start could be due to waiting for the school finance decision, Jennings said, but it also could be because the fiscal year 2015 budget was set last year as part of a two-year budget.

"That's a downside, too. It means we have more time on our hands and can get in a lot of mischief, come up with creative ideas to do all kinds of different things, many of which may not be all that positive," he said.

Hineman called the current session an "odd" one.

"We're all waiting for the school finance ruling. They typically release rulings on Friday morning, so every Friday everybody's kind of holding their breath, wondering is this the day?" he said.

Hineman is starting to think the decision won't come until after the session. The court pays attention to politics like legislators do, Hineman said.

"The longer they wait to issue that ruling, the tougher it's going to be for all of us in Topeka to respond. I'm starting to think we're going to get through this session without dealing with the school funding lawsuit," he said.

If so, Hineman said, the state will live in denial for one more year because at least some additional funding will be required to fund K-12 education.

Questions from the audience touched on a variety of topics, including divorce, mortgage registration fees, Common Core, and a bill that would allow businesses to refuse services to gay people based on religious views. Critics say that would allow businesses to discriminate against gay people, while proponents say it is needed to protect religious freedom.

Dr. Lindsay Byrnes took legislators to task for not addressing HB 2453 in their opening comments.

"Many businesses in Kansas came out and thought this was horrible, including AT&T, and said it would disrupt their business practices. I'm disappointed with such a large, I would say immoral, piece of legislation introduced and passed by your body, and no one addressed it," she said.

Doll said all three representatives, Jennings, Hineman and himself, voted against the bill.

"It's dead on arrival in the Senate. It's not going to happen," Doll said. "This bill will not happen. I agree with you 100 percent."

Doll said when the bill was introduced, his first thought was of the Greensboro, N.C. lunch counter sit-ins to protest racial discrimination.

"As a country, we can believe what we want to believe but hate needs to go," Doll said.

Hineman, who called the bill government-sanctioned discrimination, said supporters have indicated they are going to try to fix the bill, but, in his opinion, they can't fix it enough to gain his support.

The bill is an example of something that gets proposed in order to paint people into a corner about their votes, Jennings explained. A title that seems unarguable will get assigned to a bill, such as, in this case, "The Protection of Religious Freedom Act."

"Who in the world could vote against protecting religious freedom, right?" Jennings said. "If all you do is read the bill's title and vote, then you would vote for this bill. But when you read the words ... you find out it's not what it says it is."

Jennings added that he hopes the Kansas Chamber of Commerce remembers that the three of us voted in a way that is consistent with their view of protecting jobs in the state of Kansas.

Powell said he hasn't read the House bill, but his email box was filled with messages about it. He doesn't know if the Senate can fix it or has the will to fix it.

"It's one of them things that probably shouldn't have come up," Powell said.

Misty Gerritzen, Kearny County register of deeds, asked Powell about SB 298, and whether it would come out of his committee. Kansas bankers have been pushing to eliminate the mortgage registration fee, an important source of revenue for counties.

If that happens, Gerritzen said, it will mean changing revenue from a user-based fee to an increase in property taxes to make up for the lost revenue.

Powell wasn't sure it will come out of his committee, but if it does, he doesn't think it will be in its current form. He said the chairman is trying to work out a compromise between counties and bankers.

"I can't predict what's going to happen," Powell said.

When pressed for an answer on whether he would vote for the bill right now, Powell said he hasn't decided yet.

The issue hasn't come to the House yet. Hineman indicated there are some inequalities that do need to be addressed, but he is concerned about the impact on county budgets if that revenue stream went away. Jennings and Doll both expressed concern that eliminating the mortgage registration fee would mean an increase in property taxes.

Attorney Lara Blake Bors told legislators she is concerned about bills that would end no-fault divorces, create jury trials for divorces and change the way courts look at children in those cases. Bors believes those changes would overwhelm the court system, especially in Finney County.

Doll described those bills as examples of something drawn up by a "think tank" and said he wouldn't vote for them.

"When government starts getting involved in families and our personal lives, nothing good can come from that," Doll said.

In response to a question and comments opposed to Common Core standards, Hineman and Jennings disputed the idea that Common Core is a federal mandate.

"You can maybe say it's federally endorsed, but it's not a federal mandate and didn't originate with the federal government," Hineman said.

Hineman said Common Core originated with individual states who were looking for an alternative to No Child Left Behind. It's also not curriculum, he said, it's about standards.

"Schools have always had standards, expectations for students at different levels, different grades," Hineman said. "What's different about Common Core is these standards are now being standardized among a number of different states."

Hineman pointed out the state is three-and-a-half years into the process and local school boards and teachers have all been involved in designing the standards for the state.

Jennings said arguments last year about a federal mandate, testing and data mining are false. Testing is being developed by Kansas University and administered by Kansas school districts, and all information will be retained in the state. There's no desire by the state to allow detailed personal information to be accessed by third parties.

"Those issues that were sound bites last year have been resolved — at least they've resolved to my satisfaction," Jennings said.

Powell voted to do away with Common Core last year and got a lot of emails, and has lots of friends against it.

"I'm not on the education committee so I really don't know what's going on. I do have some friends who send me interesting letters. I had lunch with someone yesterday from out of state who was on the other side. I guess we'll just let this work through the process and see what happens," Powell said.

Jennings choked up briefly while thanking people for the outpouring of cards, emails and texts that came his way following a heart attack.

"You know, it scares the hell out of you when you almost die," Jennings said. "I'm thankful there were plenty of nurses and doctors to help me out. And I'm thankful to be able to be here and to serve in the legislature. I was overwhelmed by the number of phone calls, emails, cards and letters."

Given that, Jennings quipped, the rest of the session is going to be pretty good.

The next Legislative Coffees are scheduled for March 15, April 19 and May 17.

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