Archive for Friday, March 19, 2010

Legislative Update: Week 10

March 19, 2010

It has been a very long week. The Senate Transportation Committee, of which I am the Ranking Minority member, has had 9 meetings this week, totally about 14 hours. We are moving ever closer to the end of the legislative session and discussions continue concerning the budget, a comprehensive transportation plan and a few other issues.

HISTORIC TAX CREDITS

This week the House passed SB 430, which is the Historic Tax Credit fix. The bill removes the hard cap on credits and the 10% "haircut" for fiscal year 2011 and in the future. It puts the historic tax cut back to where it was before the 2009 session. The bill will go to the tax conference committee, which will consist of the chairs of the House and Senate tax committees, the vice chairs of both and the ranking minority member of both. For more information about the program, go to the Kansas Historical Society Web site.

These tax credits provide a key tool for the rehabilitation of historic properties -- both income-producing and non income-producing. The credit has proven to be a very productive economic development tool and it is crucial for several projects in the Leavenworth community, including the former Tire Town project to create the Stove Factory Lofts and the CPAC project that is planned for a 60,000 sq. ft. building to be rehabilitated on the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center grounds.

I will continue to track the bill for you and watch its progress.

TAX COMMITTEE HOLDS HEARING ON “SODA TAX”

More than 400 people swarmed the Capitol building on Wednesday to make their voices heard on a new proposal that would levy a tax on sugary drinks such as soda and fruit juices.

Members of the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee held a hearing on the bill, which would increase the tax on beverages by one cent per teaspoon of sugar – about 10 cents for an average can of soda.

The proposal was introduced as a way to generate revenue for the state during our current financial shortfall. It’s been estimated that the one-cent tax increase could generate up to $90 million annually.

Before this bill ever reaches the Senate floor, it will have to be approved by the Taxation Committee. I do not serve on the Taxation Committee, but I will keep you updated on any further scheduled hearings and the committee’s final decision regarding this bill.

BILL TO ALLOW OLDER SCHOOL BUSES TO STAY IN OPERATION

On Thursday, the Senate debated a bill which would extend the life of hundreds of Kansas school buses by allowing local schools to keep buses that are at least 20-years-old in operation through July 1, 2012.

During a hearing on the bill, several proponents testified that by signing this bill – House Bill 2486 – into law, local districts could save money without endangering the lives of children.

Under current state law, schools must retire and replace buses that have been in operation for 20 years. For districts to keep older buses on the road past 20-years, each bus must annually pass mechanical and Highway Patrol inspections.

The bill does not require school districts to keep a bus past 20 years, just the option to do so.

I support this bill. As long as we keep the safety of our children and school employees first, I believe that extending the life of some buses will allow schools to use money that would have been designated for bus-upgrades to pay for other important things like supplies, paraprofessionals, and student activities.

HB 2472 REVISES HOMEOWNERS RIGHTS

A bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday would help protect homeowners by establishing the Kansas Uniform Common Interest Owners Bill of Rights Act.

The Act establishes uniform rules, rights and duties of Homeowners Associations, so that no member or Board Director may take unfair control of an association’s dues, member eligibility or responsibilities.

This bill was introduced after a number of Association Board Presidents were accused of intimidating members or using member dues for non-intended purposes. I am hopeful that HB 2472 will help remedy these types of situations and will help homeowners understand and protect their rights.

During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Kelly Kultala offered an amendment to add into the bill the provisions of Senate Bill 561, which deals with abandoned housing rehabilitation regulations for nonprofits. After a number of concerns were voiced, however, the amendment was withdrawn.

SENATE APPROVES DAY CARE LICENSING BILL

In an effort to better protect Kansas children, the Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that will compel all day care providers to be licensed and regularly inspected.

Senate Bill 447 – which the Senate formally named “Lexie’s Law” on behalf of a 13-month-old child who died while staying at a day care provider in 2004 – would change current law to state that all Kansas day care facilities must be licensed rather than just “registered”. The state would then have the ability to inspect all licensed facilities and to require that providers submit written self-examinations annually.

Parents will also have access to information on each state-licensed provider via a Web site.

During floor debate, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau to require at least one fire extinguisher be present in all state-licensed day care facilities.

I understand that this issue is very important to a number of parents and day care providers in our community. While I have heard and read a number of perspectives on this issue, the one thing I believe we can all agree on is that the safety and security of Kansas children is of the utmost importance.

As this bill continues to move through the legislative process, I will continue seeking input from local day care providers, community leaders, parents and teachers. It is my goal to have the governor sign a law that will be most beneficial for all involved parties.

INSURANCE FOR AUTISM TREATMENTS EXPANDED

On Thursday, the Senate voted on House Bill 2160, which would mandate that insurance providers “test-track” coverage for autism treatments to children.

Under the plan, insurers would be required to provide autism coverage to anyone younger than 19 who is covered by the state’s insurance plan beginning January 1st, 2011. Coverage would be capped at $36,000, depending on the client’s age.

I voted in favor of HB 2160. Currently, no health insurance carrier in Kansas consistently covers the diagnosis and appropriate treatment of autism. Unfortunately, many insurance companies designate autism as a diagnostic exclusion, meaning that any services rendered explicitly for the treatment of autism are not covered by the plan, even if those services would be covered if used to treat a different condition.

While some organizations have voiced concern that expanded autism coverage would lead to higher rates, proponents of the bill estimate only a 0.62% increase, or $1.88 per insured person per month.

According to the Kansas Coalition for Autism Legislation, approximately 50% of children with autism who are diagnosed early and who receive appropriate treatment will mainstream in a public school setting without an aide. When access to appropriate treatment is denied, only 2% of affected children will achieve this level of success.

CHRIS BIGGS NAMED SECRETARY OF STATE

Citing his experience, professionalism and dedication, Gov. Mark Parkinson on Tuesday named Chris Biggs as Kansas’ Secretary of State.

“Chris has been in public service for more than 20 years, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to our state, our citizens and our future,” Parkinson said. “Chris will bring his forward-looking vision to the Office of Secretary of State while increasing the efficiency and participation in Kansas’ elections.”

Until this appointment, Biggs served as the state’s Securities Commissioner, where he most recently, and successfully, prosecuted the founder of a bankrupt theme park in Wichita which had defrauded investors of millions of dollars.

“Protecting the integrity of our state’s securities has been my mission for the past eight years. I bring that same experience and resolve to protecting the integrity of our state’s business filings and electoral system. I am honored, and truly humbled, to be selected for this new post,” said Secretary Biggs.

Prior to being named Kansas’ Security Commissioner in 2003, Biggs had served as an attorney in public service, including 14 years as Geary County Attorney.

KPERS FUND RANKED 49th NATIONALLY

Kansas public employees oftentimes work for wages that are lower than the market for similar jobs in the private sector. However, one of the benefits of being a state employee (or local school district employee) is a respectable pension plan. Our Kansas Public Employee Retirement System (KPERS) offers an employee a benefit of 1.75% times the number of years of service times the average of the highest three year’s salary for an employee who reaches retirement age. For example, a state employee who retires after 30 years of service would receive 52.5% (1.75% times 30 years) of his/her salary as a retirement benefit. State employees pay 4% of their salary into the system.

The KPERS fund, like other state retirement funds, was hit hard by the stock market drop two years ago. The market has rebounded, but the KPERS fund is still alarmingly underfunded. The most recent report from the Pew Center on the States (issued in February) found that the Kansas retirement system was only 58.82% funded. This means that we only have 58.82% of the money we need in the system to fund our obligations to current and future state retirees.

This ranking is second worst in the entire United States, with Illinois having a 54.33% funding record. The Government Accountability Office says 80% is the preferred benchmark funding level. The last time Kansas met that mark was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The KPERS actuary told the Kansas Legislature that it needed to increase the employer contribution to keep the fund actuarially sound. The Legislature chose not to heed the recommendation and increased the employer share, although much less than needed. In addition, the state is short by $106.48 per person, in money set aside for post employment health insurance costs for current and future employees.

This is yet another example of a critical service provided by state government that must be provided for in FY 2011. There are currently 268,000 Kansans impacted by KPERS funding. All of these Kansans depend on KPERS to survive and none of them have had a cost of living adjustment since the early 1990s.

It is the Legislature’s responsibility to take care of these retirees. We must reverse the trends of the past two decades and adequately fund our KPERS system so the hard working state employees – past and present – can count on a retirement system which will allow them to retire in dignity.

OPEN RECORDS EVENTS PLANNED

In honor of Sunshine Week, Attorney General Steve Six will host open government regional training opportunities this June.

The regional trainings will bring together public officials, Kansas citizens, media and more, to better understand the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) and the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA). The workshops will be held June 22 through July 1 in Salina, Wichita, Olathe, Pittsburg and Topeka. The workshops are available free to the public, although registration is required. Last year, over 400 people participated in the first KORA KOMA regional training workshops.

I encourage you to participate in these important programs, Under Kansas law, citizens have the right to access public records and observe many meetings where decisions are made that affect our state. It is important that Kansans know and understand their rights.

For more information please visit here.

State Sen. Kelly Kultala, D-Kansas City, represents the 5th District, which includes parts of Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties.

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