Archive for Friday, February 19, 2010

Legislative update Week 6

February 19, 2010

— Here is Week 6 of my Legislative Update. It has been a long week of debating bills on the Senate floor, and actually we are still debating as I send this newsletter.

TURNAROUND MARKS HALFWAY POINT OF SESSION

This week, legislators worked all day on the floor in preparation for Saturday’s turnaround, which is the deadline for most bills to clear their house of origin to stay alive in the current session. In total, we debated more than 60 bills, which on top of my typical legislative duties made for a very long but productive week at the Capitol.

The Senate will be off this Monday but will be back in session on Tuesday to continue the debate on bills that have been sent over from the House of Representatives. Conference committees will also continue to meet in order to iron out the details of any bills that have been approved by both chambers. Complete daily calendars are available for you to follow at http://www.kslegislature.org/ along with live broadcasts of Senate and House proceedings.

I am honored to serve as your Senator and am humbled by the support I receive from my community. I want to thank the people of the 5th District for allowing me this opportunity. My office is located in room 124-E. Please feel free to visit, or to contact me at (785) 296-7357, if you should have any questions.

HOW KDOT HAS USED ARRA FUNDS

One year ago this past week – on Feb. 17, 2009 - the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law at the federal level. Having heard many comments questioning whether Kansas citizens benefited from that federal legislation, it is helpful to detail how the funds our state received just dealing with our highway program have been spent.

The entire $378 million Kansas received for transportation projects was committed ahead of the March 1 deadline so the state will be allowed to use all of those funds. Both KDOT employees and the local partners worked diligently to get the funds committed in the time frame required because these funds came to states on a “use it or lose it” basis.

Construction spending so far has totaled $42 million and 1,096 jobs have been created or sustained with these funds by October, 2009. KDOT expects nearly 3,300 construction jobs to be created or sustained by the time construction season is in full force this year – not to mention the additional jobs created or sustained by purchasing construction materials and services.

Additionally KDOT has been able to stretch Recovery dollars because of lower-than-anticipated bid prices. The winning bids on the four major state projects now under contract came is an average of 17 percent below estimates. That savings will be used to fund more work on the state’s roads.

If you’d like to see a map of Recovery projects in Kansas or if you’d like more specific information, please check at
http://www.ksdot.org/Economic_Recovery/

HEALTH INSURERS TO COVER DRUG THERAPY FOR CANCER PATIENTS

On Thursday, the Senate approved SB 390, which would require individual and group health insurance policies after July 1, 2011, to provide coverage for prescribed orally administered anti-cancer medications on a basis no less favorable than they cover intravenously administered or injected cancer medications. The bill was supported in committee by patients, oncologists, The American Cancer Society and many others.

As a larger percentage of cancer treatment moves toward drug therapy, this legislation will allow patients – in consultation with their physician – to receive the best available care.

Sen. Janis Lee, from Kensington, explained on the Senate floor the importance of this legislation to all Kansans, but especially to rural communities where it is not uncommon for people to live 3 to 5 hours away from a major medical facility. Many times it is not practical for these rural Kansans to take off work for days to receive treatments intravenously.

If the legislation is approved by the House of Representative and is signed by Gov. Mark Parkinson, Kansas will join a growing number of states that recognize this important new trend in cancer treatment.

TWO BILLS WOULD LIMIT TEACHER RIGHTS

Two bills introduced this week would change the state’s current teacher contract law, further restricting the rights of new and retiring educators.

The Senate voted 30-10 on Tuesday in favor of a controversial bill that would allow school districts to notify teachers if their contracts have been renewed one month later than currently dictated by law.

Senate Bill 362 lets districts change the teacher contract notification deadline to June 1, if the district simply adopts a resolution to do so. In such a case, a teacher would have only until June 15 to notify the board of an intent to not renew the teaching contract. The same would apply to administrators, within the term when the administrator’s contract expires.

In times of economic hardship, school boards commonly cut back on expenses by dropping their contracts with probationary new teachers. SB 362 would allow schools to string along teachers for another month before notifying them that they will not be needed for the upcoming school year.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 20-20 against Senate Bill 355, which would amend the continuing teacher contract law by removing retired teachers who have returned to work from the continuing contract process.

As a result, returning teachers would lose the right to be notified in a timely manner of whether or not they will have a job the next year. If this bill is signed into law, this group of teachers can be left unsure of their employment status as late as the day before school begins.

I voted against both of these bills. While being let go is never easy, it is important that we let teachers know as soon as possible if their contract will not be renewed so that they can begin to look for new employment. The state’s current budget crisis should not be an excuse to limit teacher rights.

SENATE APPROVES RESCISSION COMPROMISE

Because state revenues have been consistently lower than expected, it was necessary to make additional cuts to the FY 2010 budget that will ensure the State of Kansas ends the fiscal year with a positive ending balance (referred to as a rescission bill). Most of the necessary cuts were made in November by Governor Parkinson, but some required statutory action.

A six-member conference committee – made up of three House Appropriations members and three Senate Ways and Means Committee members – met recently to approve a final rescission bill that could be agreed upon by both chambers.

For the most part, the conference committee accepted Gov. Parkinson’s proposal with only a few amendments. Specifically, the committee agreed to a floor amendment that was adopted by the House, reducing the salary of every elected official by 5 percent (this includes all public officials who are paid with state monies: statewide officers, state legislators, district judges, etc.). The committee also agreed to a House amendment that shifted some Medicaid cuts, enabling health care providers to receive more in matching funds.

The committee agreed to a Senate provision that would cut legislative postage allowances in half and would limit legislative leaders to a $2,500 yearly postage allowance. Currently, legislative leaders have an unlimited postage allowance.

During floor debate, some senators voiced concerns regarding pay cuts to members of the Board of Regents, legislators and district judges. Although these concerns are certainly viable and worth further discussion, it is not possible to amend a conference committee report. At this point in the process, senators only have two options – either voting in favor of or against the report as it is presented.

I voted in favor of the conference committee report. Although it is nowhere near perfect, I believe the rescission bill we approved today is the best compromise possible at this time and will bring needed relief to many vulnerable Medicaid recipients.

Even with passage of the rescission bill, the Legislature will probably take up the FY 2010 budget again in the near future. Revenues were lower than expected again in January, and the state will likely be short approximately $40 million by July even with the additional cuts we approved this week. I expect we will revisit this again in April when the most updated round of revenue estimates are released and we have a more accurate picture of the shortfall. In the interest of the legislative calendar, it is best to turn our attention to FY 2011 for now.

SENATE BANS TEXT MESSAGE, ELECTRONIC HARASSMENT

On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to expand the state’s harassment laws, making it a crime to harass someone using any type of telecommunications device. Although the bill includes all types of communication devices, such as fax machines and cell phones, the intent was to make it illegal for one person to harass another using text messages.

Under the bill, it would be illegal to harass a person by doing any of the following:

  • sending a lewd, obscene, filthy or indecent text message
  • sending a text message that is intended to abuse, threaten or harass
  • causing a telecommunications device – such as a phone – to repeatedly ring or activate with the intent to harass
  • knowingly allow a telecommunications device to be used by another person for the purpose of harassment

Those found guilty of committing such crimes would be subject to a class A, nonperson misdemeanor charge.

I voted in favor of this bill. Harassment by text messaging, commonly referred to as “textual harassment,” is not a joke. According to statistics from the U.S. Justice Department, up to 23 percent of stalking or harassment victims report being harassed by some form of electronic or telecommunication device such as text message, IM, or e-mails. With text message use becoming more and more common, it’s important that our state laws keep up with current technology.

PRIMARY SEAT BELT LAW CLEARS SENATE, MOVES TO HOUSE

The Senate on Tuesday voted 26 to 14 in favor of a bill that will allow police officers to pull over and ticket motorists or passengers simply for not wearing a seat belt.

During debate, some senators questioned whether, as written, the bill would allow police officers to pull over and ticket drivers for improperly wearing a seatbelt and whether a driver could be ticketed for transporting an unbelted adult passenger.

Although I certainly understand these concerns, I believe that the overwhelming statistics in favor of seat belt use far outweigh any arguments against a primary seatbelt law.

Proponents of the bill included the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas State Nurses Association and the Kansas Emergency Nurses Association, AAA, State Farm Insurance, and the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, among others.

Because it has been approved by the Senate, Senate Bill 483 will now be sent to the House of Representatives. If it is approved, the governor will have the opportunity to sign it into law.

COURT DENIES PETITION TO REOPEN SCHOOL FINANCE CASE

Last Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court announced its decision to deny a petition by public school districts to reopen the 2006 Montoy school finance lawsuit. Friday’s ruling from the court means that any new challenge to the state’s school finance system must start over at the district court level.

The attorney for the coalition of 74 districts argues that the state is failing to comply with the court’s earlier ruling that state aid to schools was unconstitutionally low. The Court opinion says that the July 28, 2006 decision found the Legislature to be in “substantial compliance” with the remedial orders made by the court in that case by passing bills in the 2005 session and special session and the 2006 session. The Court said that the 2006 decision and closing the case was “limited to determining compliance” with the Court’s orders in the specific case before the Court.

There were several problems with continuing the case originally filed in 1996. Ryan Montoy probably is no longer in public school and, therefore, does not have standing to sue under the new formula. Also, the situation of the original school districts has changed over time. And, the opinion pointed out, the case on remand would have to go through essentially the same process as a new case and “there is nothing the plaintiffs are seeking that they cannot accomplish by filing a new lawsuit.”

The decision to dismiss the case “was not unanimous” but was made by a majority of the Court. Attorney General Steve Six fought the districts’ request to reopen the case. He said a 2005 Kansas law requires that any challenge to school finance be filed first in district court.

Realistically, I agree with Gov. Parkinson: This is not the best time for anyone to sue the state. At the end of the day, we are engulfed in a terrible budget crisis and we need to stay focused on getting out of this mess as quickly as possible. Legal battles prolong everything in Topeka; they make everything more complicated and political. Sometimes they are necessary, but in these circumstances it is more productive for legislators to divert that energy to the immediate budget crisis at hand. However, my commitment to public education remains steadfast.

Regardless of the Supreme Court decision, we have a constitutional obligation to protect public schools. I will do all I can to prevent further cuts to public schools in FY 2011 and will advocate to restore the devastating cuts of FY 2010 once the economic climate of the state improves.

FREE TAX PREPARATION

Catholic Charities and Kansas City Kansas Community College are providing free tax preparation for people with incomes $49,000 and below. No appointment is necessary, but people are served first come, first served. If a day’s capacity has been reached you will be asked to return another day.

Catholic Charities

2220 Central

Kansas City, KS 66102

Site will be open on Thursdays from 5:30 – 9 pm and every Saturday from 8:30 am - 3 pm.

KCKCC

Room 3632, Upper Level of the Flint Bldg.

Mondays, 5-8 pm

Wednesdays, 5-8 pm

Saturday, 9 am – noon

HISTORIC TAX CREDIT BILL PASSES THE SENATE

SB 430 passed the Senate this week. The bill repeals a specific $3.75 million cap for both tax years 2009 and 2010 that had been imposed on historic preservation income tax credits and would replace such cap with the more general limitation designed to reduce credits by exactly 10 percent.

GOVERNOR SIGNS FIRST BILLS OF 2010 SESSION INTO LAW

Gov. Mark Parkinson signed into law the first bill of the 2010 legislative session on Thursday. “With the first bill reaching my desk, I am pleased to see the legislative session beginning to produce results,” he said.

House Bill 2414 would authorize the State Board of Regents, on behalf of Fort Hays State University, to sell and convey to the City of Hays, all of the rights, title, and interest, except mineral rights, in two tracts of real estate. The revenues from the property would be credited to the Restricts Fees Fund of Fort Hays State University for the University’s benefit, specifically for use by the University Farm for possible future purchases of land, equipment, or other farming needs. The tracts would be used for a sports complex and expansion of the city’s golf course. The bill would take effect upon publican in the Kansas Register.

The governor also signed two more bills concerning registers of deeds and the Chautaugua County sales tax authorization.

HB 2125 amends state law to require a register of deeds to obtain a receipt showing that all past and current real estate taxes due have been paid before the register of deed could record any re-play or play of survey pursuant to the Apartment Ownership Act or the Townhouse Ownership Act. Previously, this proof of tax payment had been required only before any plat was recorded.

The bill also would add to the Apartment Ownership Act and to the Townhouse Ownership Act the requirement that the register of deed cannot record any plat of survey unless the plat is accompanied by a receipt from the county treasurer showing real estate taxes have been paid. This legislation goes in effect after its publication in the Kansas Statute Book.

S Sub HB 2353 would amend local sales tax authorization statutes to retroactively ratify the results of a December 1, 2009 election in Chautauqua County regarding imposition of a new countywide sales tax earmarked to finance the costs of constructing, furnishing, and equipping a county jail and law enforcement facility. The tax would sunset upon payment of all costs incurred if the financing of the project. This legislation goes into effect after its publication in the Kansas Statute Book.

Sen. Kultala's district includes parts of Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties.

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