Opinions

Rep. Pam Curtis
Rep. Pam Curtis

The Legislature is in overtime and is now on day 96 of what should have been a 90-day session.

Neither the House nor the Senate has been able to come to an agreement on how to fix the state’s looming budget deficit and unfortunately Gov. Brownback and Republican leadership in both chambers have decided to take a passive role in the process rather than working to come up with common sense solutions for the issues facing our state.

It remains an incredible honor to represent our community in the Kansas House of Representatives. While the Legislature is in session, I do my best to stay in touch and keep you informed by email, and I spend countless hours every week helping my constituents solve problems. If I can be of service to you or anyone you know call my office at 785-296-7371 or email me at pam.curtis@house.ks.gov

Taxes
Both the House and Senate are in the process of considering revenue packages to fund the $406 million budget shortfall caused by the governor’s failed economic experiment.

The Senate tax committee passed a tax plan, which may be debated by the full Senate sometime this week. If it passes, the plan will come to the House for deliberation.

The Senate’s plan, as it stands now, raises taxes by over $1.6 billion in three years by:
• Suspending the tax break on some businesses, and replacing it with a tax credit if they hire employees
• Decreasing the food sales tax to 6.0% but raising all other sales to 6.5%
• Raising the gas tax by $0.05 cents per gallon
• Eliminating or reducing income-tax deductions, including the personal property taxes and home mortgage interest deductions
• Taxing cigarettes an additional $0.50 per pack
• Taxing other tobacco products at a higher rate
• Granting an amnesty tax period where individuals can pay their back taxes without penalty
• Freezing income tax breaks
• Lowering taxes on new vehicles to spur additional sales, thus generating more in taxes.

Although members in the House tax committee met all week, they could not come to an agreement on how to fund the budget. They will begin meeting again early next week, and will hopefully develop a plan that will then be debated by the entire House of Representatives for consideration.

Several lawmakers in both chambers have proposed a number of tax increases to help the state make ends meet including increasing sales taxes, raising property taxes, taxing certain kinds of income, and taxing gas, tobacco, and alcohol at higher rates.

One Republican lawmaker in the House has also proposed removing the sales tax exemption on public construction projects, meaning school districts, county and city governments, state agencies and some hospitals would have to begin paying sales tax on new construction projects. I am opposed to this measure because it is essentially the state taxing itself and would increase the cost of building projects and potentially increase taxes, prevent some projects from moving forward and have a negative impact on jobs.

As proposals continue to be introduced, I will consider any plan that is fair, equitable, and sustainable and puts the needs of Kansas’ families first.

Budget
The House and Senate conference committee is nearing a compromise on the final budget, and as it stands now will require more than $380 million in new taxes to fund the 2016 fiscal year. If an agreement cannot be reached on taxes, cuts will be necessary to balance the budget.

The committee was able to reach a final agreement on the state’s judicial budget this week. The appropriations bill includes a component that forces the court’s hand into ruling a certain way on a case involving the state in order to receive funding. The Legislature it is essentially extorting the court into ruling in favor of the state, which is not good government.

Changes to local elections
Although there was little progress made on the budget this week, the House voted to move local elections for offices like school board and municipal officials from the spring to November of odd-numbered years.

I voted no. Our local school boards and city governments have opposed the issue, citing that it creates unnecessary challenges. Newly elected officials would take office in January, meaning their terms would start in the middle of a fiscal year where they were not part of the budgeting process.

Kobach prosecutorial powers
The House narrowly approved legislation that grants authority to the secretary of state to criminally prosecute voter fraud. The bill, which was approved by the Senate earlier in the session, will now go to the governor’s office where he is expected to sign it into law. I voted no because it impedes on local control by allowing the secretary of state to over step locally elected county and district attorneys in the prosecuting process.

I am also concerned about another provision in the bill that will allow gifts of $3 or less to be given to voters. Under current state statute, it is illegal and considered election bribery to distribute items of tangible monetary value. Changing the law sets a dangerous precedent, and potentially exposes the democratic process to corruption. To voters $3 might seem not seem like much, but it is a matter of principle – there is no price on democracy and votes should never be bought.

Agreement reached on Uber
The governor signed a bill on Friday that the House and Senate approved earlier this week that puts into law a compromise reached between the state and Uber. The agreement:
• Requires Uber drivers to purchase comprehensive and collision insurance if their car is under the lien.
• Requires background checks, and prohibits Uber from hiring drivers whose backgrounds includes conviction of certain crimes.

This legislation replaces previous legislation that the governor vetoed, but the Legislature voted to override because it protected consumers.

Rep. Stan Frownfelter
Rep. Stan Frownfelter

Legislative session passes 90 days
The legislature has passed the 90th day of the session, and neither the House nor the Senate have come to an agreement on how to fill the state’s budget deficit. Gov. Brownback and Republican leadership in both chambers have taken passive roles in the process, and as a result the session will continue into next week. Every day the legislature is in session passed the 90th day cost the state more than $40,000.

Tax plan rejected by House

The House focused most of its attention this week on revenue proposals to fill the state’s budget shortfall caused by the governor’s irresponsible tax plan. The House Tax Committee explored several options for generating revenue including:
• Raising taxes on cigarettes from $0.79 to $1.54 a pack
• Enacting a 2.7 percent to 4.6 percent tax on businesses
• Increasing the gas tax from $0.24 to $0.29 a gallon
• Increasing sales tax to 7.15 percent.

Ultimately the House committee passed a bill that raises more than $1 billion over the three years by:
• Reducing sales tax on groceries from 6.15 percent to 5.90 percent, and raising taxes on all other sales to 6.85 percent.
• Eliminating or reducing nearly all of the state’s eligible itemized tax deductions.
• Enacting a 45 day tax amnesty period, where individuals can pay back taxes without penalties.
• Dropping the bottom tax bracket’s income tax rate from 2.70 percent to 2.55 percent.

The proposal came to the House floor on Friday, where it was quickly defeated by members of both parties. I opposed the tax plan because it cobbles together indiscriminate and regressive tax increases to subsidize the governor’s failed economic experiment.

The House Tax Committee will go back to the drawing board on Monday, and is likely to reconsider some of the taxes they have previously passed over. As the process moves forward, I will consider proposals that are responsible, equitable, and sustainable and puts the needs of middle classes and working families first.

No progress on the budget
There has not been any additional progress on the budget this week, as lawmakers are waiting on a revenue package to pass before taking further action. The state cannot spend more than it takes in, so if the legislature passes a tax plan that does not fully fund the budget as proposed, there will have to be cuts.

Sen. Pat Pettey
Sen. Pat Pettey

It is an honor to represent District 6 in the Kansas Senate.
If I can be of service to you or anyone you know, please call my office at 785-296-7375, or email me at pat.pettey@senate.ks.gov.

In this issue:
• Legislature moving at a snail’s pace
• Proposals to increase taxes
• School finance update
• Civil service protections eliminated
• Veto override
• Judicial budget
• Fantasy football
• Foster care increases
• Working after retirement
• Changes to marijuana possession penalties
• House Tax sends out bill
• Impacts of policies on families

Legislature moving at a snail’s pace

Last week the Senate worked and approved more than a dozen bills, and committees continued to meet. Unfortunately, I do not have much good news to report.

Progress is sluggish when it comes to the biggest issues left to be resolved – taxes and the budget. House and Senate tax committees met almost daily to hear proposals such as increasing the fuel tax on gasoline by 5 cents, raising the sales tax, and eliminating the homestead exemption. In short, all proposals result in a greater burden for hardworking families and Kansans living on low and fixed incomes. However, none of the proposals have “stuck.”

Proposals to increase taxes
The Senate tax committee spent the week at an impasse for how to increase revenue to fill the $800 million budget shortfall the state currently faces. On Thursday afternoon, a week ago, they finally passed a bill out of committee that would likely result in $30 million, at best, in revenue. The committee gutted Senate Bill 234, removing nearly all of the governor’s recommendations, except tax amnesty. This program allows certain taxpayers to pay a designated amount in exchange for forgiveness for their remaining tax liability.

Proposals such as increasing sales tax – commonly being referred to as consumption tax – and raising property tax are still on the table and are likely to be seen as floor amendments during the full Senate debate. I do not support any of these unfair, unsustainable tax increases.

The House Tax Committee passed out a bill without recommendation that has many parts to address the revenue hole. The only piece that is helpful to hardworking Kansans is the reduction in food sales tax to 5.9 percent. Next step – floor debate.

School finance debate
• Emergency funds — Superintendents from eight school districts appeared before the State Finance Council this week requesting emergency funds to cover expenses for the current school year. The districts lost money after the Kansas Legislature passed the law that completely changes school funding. The finance council consists of leaders from both chambers plus the governor.
In total, the schools requested $1.2 million of the $4 million from the extraordinary needs fund. After giving superintendents an opportunity to defend their need for the additional funds, the council approved funding for five of the eight districts. Of those five schools, only three received the amount they applied for, and the other two received significantly less than requested. A total of $478K was approved. This new process pits schools against each other, picks winners and losers, and creates conflict of interest situations for legislators. It’s just one more element of the quickly passed, bad policy.

• School finance case — The three-judge panel heard oral arguments Thursday and Friday of last week related to the block grant law. Superintendent Cindy Lane, from the Kansas City, Kan., school district (USD 500) explained how the block grant system is ineffective and cut funding to their district. Additionally, an official from the Kansas Department of Education noted that nearly every district in the state received reductions to their budgets. The judges also heard from the superintendent of the Hutchinson school district and Kansas Chamber President Mike O’Neal. It is unknown when the judges will issue their ruling.

Civil service system eliminated
A bill stripping public employees of their civil service protections passed the Senate this week and now heads to the governor for final approval. House Bill 2391 removes an employee’s classified status, changing them all to an “at-will” status. Employees can now be fired without cause.

This replaces the state’s current merit based system with a system that tolerates political patronage. These changes jeopardize millions of federal dollars that are provided for a number of positions serving Kansans every day. Kansans deserve the best possible employees, regardless of their political affiliation or beliefs.

Uber veto override
While legislators were on break in April, Gov. Brownback vetoed legislation that regulates ride-sharing services by requiring drivers to complete a KBI background check and to have comprehensive and collision insurance on their vehicles. The Senate voted 34-5 and the House voted 96-25 to override the veto.

In a dramatic response, ride-sharing service Uber immediately shut down all operations in the state. The company had established services in Kansas City, but was working on expanding to other cities. The veto override in no way prevents the company from operating, as they have stated, and legislators have made it clear that they are willing to continue negotiations with Uber; there is still time during the wrap-up session to come to a compromise. This $40 billion company should provide for consumer safety.

I voted in favor of the legislation because it provides added protections for drivers and consumers that the ride-service companies don’t already provide.

Judicial budget
Legislation that contains the stand-alone budget for the judiciary is in conference committee after receiving initial approval from the Senate on a vote of 32-8. House Bill 2005 continues the trend from the 2014 session of tying judicial funding to policy reforms.

Last session, the Kansas Legislature passed, and the governor signed, changes that took away the power of the high court’s to control budgets and pick chief administrative district judges. This year’s judicial budget includes policy that would remove judiciary funding entirely if the courts rule that this piece of legislation or last year’s law is invalid or unconstitutional. I voted against this bill as it is a blatant overreach of the legislative branch.

Fantasy football
Fantasy Football fans in Kansas may soon have something to cheer about. The legislature passed Senate Substitute for House Bill 2155, which legalizes fantasy football leagues. Under current law, fantasy football leagues that disburse money as awards are considered lotteries and are illegal. The legislation that passed changes the designation from a lottery to a game of skill.
The same bill also removes restrictions related to bingo, allowing premises hosting bingo to offer it more often.
I voted in favor of the legislation. It now goes to the governor for approval.

Foster care increases likely
Reports from the Department of Children and Families indicate that a record-breaking 6,337 children are in foster care as of March 2015. This number is likely to increase as more than 700 children are dropped from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) after the new law signed earlier in April changes low-income families’ lifetime eligibility from 48 months to 36 months, effective July 1.

An additional 80 children will be dropped after July. Without the assistance, many parents may not have the ability to adequately care for their children, resulting in complaints and children taken away. In addition to an increase in foster children, food pantries and homeless shelters are likely to see a spike in demand when many are already struggling to meet their community’s needs.

Working after retirement
A bill passed unanimously in the Senate that allows public employee retirees to return to work based on current law until June 30, 2016. After that point, all retirees who have returned to work will be allowed to receive up to $25,000 in compensation annually from a contributing KPERS employer, regardless of whether the retiree is returning to work for the same or different employer. Once the cap is met, the retiree must either terminate employment or forgo monthly KPERS benefits until the end of the calendar year. Under current law, the cap is $20,000.

The caps do not apply to state hospital nurses, local elected officials, legislative staff, substitute teachers, or law enforcement officers employed by the Law Enforcement Training Center. The legislation has a sunset of July 1, 2021, to ensure the Kansas Legislature evaluates the needs of retirees and employers. Senate Substitute for House Bill 2095 now goes to the House for consideration.

Changes to marijuana possession penalties
This week the House approved HB 2049, in response to projections from the Kansas Sentencing Commission that state prison populations will soon exceed current bed capacity. The legislation would lessen the current penalties of marijuana possession for repeat offenders, lowering the first violation to a misdemeanor. A third, and subsequent , violation would still result in a felony offense. If signed into law, the state may save over $1.2 million over the next year alone.

House tax sends out bill
On Monday, the House Tax Committee sent to the full House a bill that will eliminate the zero-income tax status of thousands of LLCs, small corporations and owner-operated businesses. In total, the 333,000+ businesses that pay no income taxes share a tax savings of about $205 million a year. The bill, which would raise $133 million toward a $406 million revenue shortfall for the coming fiscal year, is the first substantial effort to balance the budget, and it stabs one of the tax cuts that Gov. Brownback has touted for the past three years- that small business exemption that he says spurs the Kansas economy.

Impact of policies on families
It is becoming more evident that the governor’s policies on food stamps (SNAP) and cash assistance (TANF) are having a negative impact on Kansas families and kids. Over the last five years the number of families enrolled in cash assistance has dropped by nearly 60 percent, from 14,200 in 2010 to 6,200. The governor says the drop was due to the parents finding jobs, but the truth is that the state just made it more difficult to get help. And with the passage of HB2258, those policies were made even more stringent.

In fact, under HB2258, 350 more families will lose benefits on July 1. And every month after that, another 40 adults and 80 children will lose benefits.
While the Department of Children and Families (DCF) says there is no direct connection, Kansas is setting records for the number of children in foster care. The state is actively recruiting foster parents, anticipating more children will wind up in foster care as families cannot afford food or housing. They are also working on a communications plan to notify food pantries and homeless shelters that they will likely get more business soon.

DCF reported that a year ago they had a record number of children in foster care (6,159 children). Since then they have broken that record four times and in March 2015 we had 6,337 children in out-of-home placements. Our foster care system was never meant to handle this many children and is already overwhelmed. But with families under stress, we can expect even more children to go into the system.

I had the pleasure of attending the KCK School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 12, to witness the number of outstanding seniors receiving a variety of scholarships. It is so wonderful to see the promises that lie ahead for these students.

I am hosting a roundtable meeting with graduating seniors at the South Branch Library from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 20. All seniors are invited to attend.

I am pictured here in the Senate Chambers with Gates Millennium Scholar recipient, Yazmin Sandoval and Harmon High School Principal, Geoff Markos and teacher, Sue Rollins. Yazmin was honored and recognized during the Senate session. She is one of 5 Kansas recipients of this prestigious scholarship. Three of the winners are from the Kansas City, Kan., School District.
I am pictured here in the Senate Chambers with Gates Millennium Scholar recipient, Yazmin Sandoval and Harmon High School Principal, Geoff Markos and teacher, Sue Rollins. Yazmin was honored and recognized during the Senate session. She is one of 5 Kansas recipients of this prestigious scholarship. Three of the winners are from the Kansas City, Kan., School District.

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