Monthly Archives: February 2011

House votes to create commission on outsourcing government work

TOPEKA – After a lengthy floor fight, the House today passed a bill establishing an 11-member commission to study ways to outsource public jobs to private-sector companies and nonprofit groups.

The group would be called the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

According to House Bill 2194, the council’s main responsibility would be to “review and evaluate the possibility of outsourcing goods or services provided by a state agency to a private business or not-for-profit organization that is able to provide the same type of good or service, and whether such action would result in cost savings to the state.”

The council would also be tasked with identifying areas where government services compete with private business, “to determine ways to eliminate such competition.”

Outnumbered Democrats taunted conservative Republicans, saying that in creating another commission, they are expanding government in order to shrink it.

Read More »

House speaker and union leaders trade allegations over Thursday protest

TOPEKA — House Speaker Mike O’Neal said today that he’s reviewing video of a Thursday protest at the House chamber and may take action against lobbyists who were involved.

In a news conference, O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, claimed that union members harassed and swore at legislators and staff during the demonstration.

Union officials said O’Neal’s assertions of profanity are untrue and while they were noisy, they didn’t harass or intimidate anybody.

Union demonstrators gathered outside the House chamber Thursday morning to protest House Bill 2130 when it came up for a final vote. The bill would eliminate a paycheck checkoff that allows workers to voluntarily have donations to their union’s political action committee deducted from their wages.

The demonstration was smaller than, but inspired by, ongoing protests in Wisconsin. There, thousands of union members and supporters have besieged the Capitol for nearly two weeks in protest of a Republican plan to reduce benefits and gut collective-bargaining rights of public employees.

Read More »

Bill targets politicians’ self-serving ‘public service’ ads

TOPEKA — Final House approval is expected in about an hour on a bill to prohibit candidates, especially incumbents, from appearing in government public-service messages during the lead-up to elections.

Critics of such ads say they’re a misuse of power, allowing office holders to get free face time with voters that challengers can’t.

The House gave the measure preliminary approval Thursday; the Senate has already approved similar legislation.

Both bills, proposed by State Treasurer Ron Estes, would restrict the running of public service announcements or advertisements 60 days prior to elections that feature the picture or name of a candidate.

The hope is that politicians will no longer exploit announcements not paid for by campaign funds, nor will agencies use government funds to promote candidates, according to Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who chairs the House Committee on Election.

Read More »

House votes to require voters to show ID

TOPEKA — The House has approved a bill to require voters to provide photo identification when they vote in person or by mail.

The bill would also require that new voters provide proof of citizenship.

Opponents, primarily Democrats, hammered the bill, saying it’s designed to depress turnout and disenfranchise voters for political gains.

Republicans supporting the bill have argued that it would not disenfranchise anyone because most people have the needed IDs or could get them without too much trouble. Lower-income voters would be eligible for free IDs.

The vote on the bill was 78-36.

Bill to lure professionals to rural areas wins Senate approval

In an effort to attract college graduates to rural areas of Kansas, the Senate passed legislation proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback to provide tax exemptions and set up a student-loan repayment program for some who relocate to those areas.

Senate Bill 198 designates 50 counties as Rural Opportunity Zones (ROZ) that need professionals and college graduates to provide services in their communities, particularly in medical and dental fields.

Most of the ROZ’s have experienced population declines of at least 10 percent.

Governor Brownback and the secretaries of revenue and commerce requested this bill to bolster the rural areas. In presenting the program to the Senate Taxation Committee, Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan said the administration is attempting to reverse the migration from rural to urban communities.

Read More »

Property tax option to pay for school activities shot down in the House

TOPEKA — After complaints that poor students would be left behind, the House rejected a bill to allow school districts to tax themselves extra to pay for sports, bands and other extracurricular activities.

House Bill 2201 would have authorized districts, with voter consent, to raise property taxes to pay for extra activities beyond what the state requires schools to offer. It was shot down primarily by a coalition of Wichita and rural representatives who complained it would result in unequal education based on wealth.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said rich communities with high property tax bases would be able to offer students a broad menu of activities by raising taxes as little as one-half of 1 mill. Poor districts would have to raise taxes 10 or more mills to get the same kind of dollars, he said.

“One of the proponents of this bill said ‘Life isn’t fair, so why would you expect schools to be fair?’” Ward said.

Proponents said they are expecting major cuts to school funding and wanted to give districts an option to continue to fund programs such as Japanese language instruction, jazz bands and minor sports such as diving.

“I know you may not believe this, but I brought it with a pure heart for the kids,” said House Majority Leader Alrlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe.

The vote on the bill was 54 in favor to 61 against.

Senate passes sales tax transparency plan

TOPEKA — The Senate today passed legislation that would require retailers to print cumulative state and local sales tax rates on all receipts or to display the rates on easily readable signs near cash registers.

Senate Bill 1, which will now be considered by the House of Representatives, would let shoppers see not just the amount of tax they are paying on their purchases, but the percentage as well.

Businesses without cash registers would be required to post the rate in a highly visible area.

Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, said he favored the posting of the tax rate because purchases are not always made at a traditional cash register.

“Like when you’re buying a car and they take you into that little room where you sign a stack of papers and then find out how much you’re paying in taxes,” Kelsey said.

The bill also targets retailers who collected taxes based on erroneous sales tax rates, examples of which were cited by Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Assessment and Taxation.

Supporters also have said the disclosure would tip off consumers when they are making purchases in special districts where sales taxes are higher to pay for economic development projects.

By Todd Fertig

Estes’ unclaimed-property bill clears Senate

TOPEKA — Legislation requested by state Treasurer Ron Estes to would give his office greater access to private information in order to return unclaimed property passed the Senate today.

A version of the bill already has passed the House.

Senate Bill 116 would relax confidentiality provisions to authorize the Secretary of Revenue to release current and prior addresses of taxpayers, or of their spouses and dependents, listed on income tax returns.

Estes, the former Sedgwick County treasurer, said that the information he is seeking would be used only in the effort to contact the owners of the unclaimed property and their families.

He would seek names, addresses and phone numbers from such sources as Department of Revenue records, death certificates and other confidential documents.

According to Estes, the treasurer’s office has an estimated $220 million worth of property belonging to current and former Kansans.

Unclaimed items of sentimental value are retained indefinitely. Other items are sold after three years and the money retained in an account for the owner to recover.

Estes said the efforts by his predecessors to return such property were restricted by limits on access to the records in question. Such efforts included public-information campaigns and booths at the State Fair.

Estes seeks a more aggressive program to return the unclaimed property, which would require greater access to information.

Senate approves changes for phone charges to pay for 911 service

TOPEKA — The Senate passed legislation today that would change the fees imposed on all phones and devices that can call for 911 emergency services, to pay for that service.

Senate Bill 50 would level fees which under current law are different for wireless and wireline services.

A 50 cent a month fee would be imposed by the new legislation on all phones and devices capable of contacting 911. Now, wireline phones pay 75 cents and wireless devices are charged a quarter.

Money collected monthly by phone companies and wireless providers would be remitted to the local administrator of 911 services.

The bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012 if it becomes law. It will now go to the House.

A fee on prepaid wireless service would remain at 1 percent of the retail transaction.

The bill allows the Department of Revenue to retain as much as $70,000 of the revenue generated from prepaid wireless purchases in 2012 to pay for one-time costs of establishing the system by which wireless fees are collected.

The cost of 911 services, called Public Service Answering Points, vary based on the population of a county. The percentage of the revenue directed to each county would vary in accordance to need.

Every county would receive a minimum of $50,000, which is a significant increase for some of the least populous counties in the state.

Sedgwick County would receive about $2.7 million annually to provide 911 services, based on 2009 numbers of cell phones and landlines.

The county would get about $107,605 less than previously projected under the current system, but senators from Wichita said they are comfortable with the legislation.

Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, said that the projections were based on statistics that have changed dramatically. He said more people have cell phones and other devices that can call 911 than in 2009, which would increase revenues in Sedgwick County.

Petersen said he consulted with the director of 911 services in Sedgwick County, who was in favor of the bill.

Sedgwick County, and any other county that experienced a deficit in funds to pay for the service, could apply for grant money collected by the state, in addition to a 911 Federal Grant Fund.

–Todd Fertig, Eagle Topeka Bureau

House approves bill to give governor and Senate more sway over selecting appeals judges

TOPEKA — The state House has approved a bill to change the way the state chooses appellate judges.

House Bill 2101 would bring Kansas more closely into line with the federal system of selection, with the governor nominating judges who would then have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Under the current system, a special commission selects up to three nominees whose names are sent to the governor. The governor can choose any of them or reject all and ask for new nominees.

The nominating commission is made up of four members and a chairperson chosen by the state’s licensed lawyers, and four lay members who cannot be attorneys, appointed by the governor.

The Senate has no role in the current selection process.

Changing the way judges are selected has been a key priority for Americans for Prosperity, a political group linked to Koch Industries that advocates for minimal government involvement in business. Gov. Sam Brownback has also been strongly supportive.

Opponents include the League of Women Voters, the Kansas and Wichita Bar Associations, the Kansas Association of Defense Counsel and retired Supreme Court Justice Fred N. Six.

Opponents charge that the change would inject partisan politics into the selection system, harming the independence of the judiciary.

Supporters say the current system is undemocratic because only lawyers can participate in selecting the majority of the commissioners who nominate the judges.

The change would only affect the Kansas Court of Appeals. The selection process for Supreme Court judges could only be changed with a constitutional amendment and local jurisdictions would remain free to use their current systems, either election or appointment.