Monthly Archives: May 2011

State budget a done deal after 3 a.m. House vote

TOPEKA – Debating deep into the early morning hours today, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in approving a $13.8 billion annual budget making deep cuts in education and shedding thousands of public jobs.

But unlike in the Senate, the budget faced strong opposition in the House from both left and right.

Democrats and a few Republicans decried cuts to schools and social service programs for the disabled and elderly.

They more or less alternated with conservative-movement Republicans who said the cuts don’t go deep enough.

But in the end – five minutes shy of 3 a.m., the center held and the budget that had been hammered out in 20 meetings of a House-Senate conference committee passed 69-55.

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Senate passes state budget

The Senate passed a state budget late Thursday, amid some complaints that it cuts funding for public schools too deeply and gives up on bringing government worker pay up to the standards of other states.

Republicans said the budget is a responsible document to start restructuring the delivery of public services in a more efficient manner.

This budget goes to great efforts to help our government be responsible in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression,” said Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma. “It goes to great efforts to help our government live within its means just like our families do.”

Gov. Sam Brownback said earlier Thursday that he wanted the budget to pass without any Democratic votes and in the Senate, at least, he got his wish.

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House balks Senate-approved bill to ban abortion from insurance policies

TOPEKA — In their fourth major anti-abortion action of the current legislative session, the Senate has passed a bill that will require most women who want an abortion to pay for the full cost of the procedure themselves.

House Bill 2075 bars insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their regular health coverage plans. Under the bill’s provisions, general insurance plans could cover termination of pregnancy only in emergency situations to save the life of the mother.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, objected to the provision, saying that it had been added at the last minute in conference committee in violation of Senate rules, because it had not been approved by either chamber.

But Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, argued that it could be added because the Senate had passed other measures dealing with insurance.

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Anti-ObamaCare measure on the comeback trail in the Legislature

Obama

Landwehr

TOPEKA — Having failed as a constitutional amendment this session, the Health Care Freedom Act is poised to make a comeback as a state law.

The measure seeks to exempt residents of Kansas from having to purchase health insurance under the federal Affordable Health Care Act. The bill is a conservative Republican response to what they derisively call “ObamaCare.”

Moments ago, a House-Senate Conference Committee unanimously agreed to include the Health Care Freedom Act in a multi-part bill bundling a dozen health measures including changes in pharmacy audits, dental franchising and addiction counseling, along with an exemption from the state indoor smoking ban for a Wichita priest’s annual charity cigar benefit.

The HCFA was originally proposed as a constitutional amendment and passed the House, but stalled in the no-less Republican but somewhat-less-conservative Senate. If it had been passed, it would have gone to voters for final approval.

Tonight, both chambers are expected to pass the act as an ordinary state law. That would mean that unlike an amendment, it could be changed by future legislatures.

The federal health law seeks to achieve near-universal health coverage by requiring most employers to provide insurance opportunities for employees. Most uninsured people would be required to buy health insurance — with government help for the poor — in insurance exchanges.

The requirement is scheduled to take effect starting in 2014.

Assuming the Legislature passes the HFCA as a law, “we believe that people will still be able to make choices in 2014,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, the chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said after the conference committee meeting.

“Well, some of you believe that,” interjected Rep. Geraldine Flaherty, D-Wichita, the ranking minority member of the committee.

Flaherty said she doesn’t think the HCFA will actually accomplish anything because she doubts the state can legally exempt itself from a federal law. The Supreme Court will eventually decide whether the federal act itself is constitutional, she added.

“There’s no point in stopping the rest of this bill over that issue,” she said.

Governor signs bills on grandparents’ rights, hit-and-run penalties, inauguration donations and voyeur photos

TOPEKA – Gov. Sam Brownback signed a flurry of bills into law today, including measures to give grandparents more rights in child-in-need-of-care cases and allow the governor to donate unspent inaugural funds to charity.

The governor also signed bills to stiffen penalties for leaving the scene of an accident and for secretly taking pictures of people who are nude.

In the ceremony at his Capitol office, the first bill Brownback signed was Senate Bill 67, a measure allowing him – and any future governors – to donate unspent money from their inaugurations to charity.

“The economy’s tough, what we need to do is do something to help people with the inauguration, not spend a whole bunch of money on having a big party after the election,” Brownback said.

But he said the Governmental Ethics Commission ruled that it would be illegal for him to donate unspent inauguration funds. He said as soon as the new law takes effect, his office will contribute the leftover money to community health clinics.

Brownback would not say how much money will be donated because there are still a few bills to be paid from his January inauguration.

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DUI bill passes House; awaiting consideration in Senate

By DEB GRUVER

The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — Despite concerns by some that it doesn’t go far enough, Senate Bill 6, which strengthens penalties for DUIs by creating a system to better track offenders and requiring first-time offenders to use interlock devices, passed the House on Thursday.

Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, and chair of the House’s Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, was “thrilled” the measure succeeded on a 121-0 vote. The bill is the culmination of work by the Kansas DUI Commission, formed after a drunken driver crashed into and killed a 4-year-old girl and her mother three years ago in Wichita. The commission was tasked to find ways to reduce drunken driving to prevent more fatalities on Kansas roads.

“It’s a good law that will save lives,” Colloton said. “This bill is a huge advancement for public safety in Kansas.”

A few representatives, including Rep. Nile Dillmore,  D-Wichita, spoke out against the measure, saying they were concerned about removing a requirement that licenses for drivers with five or more DUIs be revoked.

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House speaker, Senate president thank colleagues for hard work on Kansas budget

TOPEKA — House Speaker Mike O’Neal and Senate president Steve Morris thanked their colleagues this morning for hard work reaching a $14 billion budget that leaves the state with $50 million in reserves.

Budget negotiators met more than 20 times in recent weeks to hash out agreement on a budget that now goes to both chambers and then to Gov. Sam Brownback to sign.

The budget that negotiators signed off on late Wednesday is “the culmination of some very hard work by our conferees,” Morris, R-Hugoton, told reporters this morning. “Our revenue stream has been very volatile the last few years.”

With a $50 million ending balance, “we do have a cushion there. We have a balanced budget.”

O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said legislators faced a “daunting” task at the beginning of the year with a $500 million deficit.

“A lot of people doubted we could get that job done,” he said of balancing the budget, “and get it done without raising taxes.”

Of negotiations, O’Neal said, “the Senate had priorities. The House had priorities. They were not always the same priorities.”

Both leaders thanked Brownback, who earlier this week gave legislators a nudge to wrap up this week, for offering his help.

O’Neal indicated that legislators would wrap up by Friday. Today marks the last day of the traditional 90-day session.

“This is a responsible budget that sets the state for the resumption of Kansas job grwoth,” O-Neal, R-Hutchinson, said.

Wichita Chamber thanks legislators for work on airfares

The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce this morning applauded legislative budget negotiators for getting $5 million for affordable airfares in next year’s spending road map for the state.

“We know the program is working,” Lynn Nichols, chairman of the chamber’s board, said in a news release about securing funding for the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program. “One of the six strategic priorities of the Wichita Metro Chamber is to create a better business environment that promotes investment, innovation and job creation. The Affordable Airfares Program helps keep our businesses and jobs in Kansas, provides lower airfares for all Kansans and encourages a competitive environment for us to attract new businesses.”  

Suzie Ahlstrand, interim president and CEO of the Chamber, thanked Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, and Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, in particular.

McGinn chairs the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, and Rhoades chairs the House’s Appropriations Committee. They served as their chambers’ lead negotiators in reaching a $14 billion budget Wednesday night.

The budget still needs to go to the House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Bill to restrict cities’ annexation power passes both houses of the Legislature

TOPEKA — Both houses of the Legislature today overwhelmingly passed a bill to restrict the way that cities add to their territory, despite some concerns that the proposed new rules could slow growth and economic development.

By votes of 105-17 and 31-6, the House and Senate passed Senate Bill 150, which tightens the rules for cities that want to annex property from unincorporated areas. It will now go to Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk.

The bill would require a vote of affected property owners when a city and county approve an annexation of more than 40 acres. The County Commission would need a two-thirds vote to go forward, rather than the simple majority now required.

Annexations of less than 40 acres would not require a public vote, but the commission approval would still require a two-thirds supermajority.

Cities would still be allowed to annex land without a county commission vote in some circumstances.

The bill also shortens the time residents have to wait to try to undo an annexation if they feel the city they’re added to is not providing adequate public services.

At present, the County Commission is required to hold a hearing five years after an annexation to determine whether the city that took the land is adequately providing services to residents. SB 150 shortens that to three years.

In cases where the county determines a city is not providing adequate services, the city now has two years to correct the problem before an annexation can be revoked. SB 150 shortens that to 18 months.

Sedgwick County has experienced numerous annexation fights in recent years, especially among the smaller cities north of Wichita.

In 2008 and 2009, former county Commissioner Kelly Parks was part of a movement to form a new city called “West Valley,” in an effort to stop Valley Center from annexing neighborhoods of rural residents who didn’t want to be part of that city.

In 2007, the County Commission ruled that Park City had failed to provide adequate services to annexed residents of neighborhoods just east and southeast of Wichita Greyhound Park.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, a supporter of SB 150, called it “a good compromise” between representatives of property owners and municipal governments.

He said extensive negotiations had resulted in legislation that put more conditions on annexation, but still gained the support of the Kansas League of Municipalities.

“We worked hard,” Huebert said. “This is one of the most significant changes in annexation law in recent years.”

Residents of Johnson County, including professional golfer Tom Watson, have been trying to get the Legislature to pass annexation restrictions for several years after Overland Park annexed about 8 square miles in 2008.

Johnson County Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, argued against the bill on the Senate floor.

“It will make annexation under certain circumstances either very difficult or impossible,” he said. “That’s exactly what this bill is designed to do, is stifle development … If you think that development is important and creation of jobs is important, you’ll vote against this bill.”

Contributing: Brad Cooper of the Kansas City Star

House votes to reduce Bioscience Authority role in funding for bioterrorism lab at K-State

TOPEKA — The House of Representatives today unanimously approved a bill cutting the Kansas Bioscience Authority out of handling more than $100 million in bonds for a major bioterrorism lab under development at Kansas State University.

Under House Substitute for Senate Bill 154, the state Department of Administration, which falls under the governor’s control, would replace the KBA to issue $105 million in bonds to develop the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The State Finance Council, a nine-member committee made up of the governor and leaders from the House and Senate, will have final control over the bond process.

This evening, the Senate voted not to concur with the House action, to allow the bill to go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said she wanted to discuss the changes the House made before recommending whether to approve them.

The federal laboratory will be the nation’s premiere facility for research into countering possible bioterrorism attacks and threats to the nation’s food supply.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire, said the House wants to shift the bond duties to send a signal to the federal government that the state will meet all its commitments to building the $650 million facility.

He said representatives want to make sure that ongoing investigations of the KBA don’t open the door for other states to try to steal the laboratory from Kansas.

“We didn’t want any kind of hint of a problem,” Brunk said.

The Bioscience Authority is at present under investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney’s office.

While prosecutors have not released details of that criminal probe, members of the Senate Commerce Committee have questioned KBA leaders on its salary and bonus structure, travel and entertainment spending, investment policies and participation in out-of-state venture capital funds. The agency’s chief executive officer, Tom Thornton recently resigned under fire and has since moved to a job at the Cleveland Clinic.

Bioscience Authority officials have defended the agency’s business and personnel practices, which they say are consistent with similar agencies in other states and allowed by legislation enabling the authority to act more like a private business.

Board members said this week that they are unsure what the district attorney is examining.

Under pressure from the governor and lawmakers, KBA leaders have retained an accounting and investment firm to conduct a “forensic audit” into the agency’s financial operations. A forensic audit is a deep examination of an agency’s transactions designed to create a report that can be used as evidence in a court of law.

Commerce Committee Chairwoman Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announced this week that she plans to seek an attorney general’s opinion to determine whether the KBA board has violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by taking action at out-of-state meetings.