Monthly Archives: March 2012

Reps. Ward, Landwehr trade shots over managed care for developmentally disabled

A proposal to except developmental disability care from the governor’s Medicaid reform effort led to a tense exchange — and an admonition from the speaker of the House — for two of Wichita’s most prominent lawmakers.

The exchange came after Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, and Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, tangled over an attempt by Ward to amend a bill to take developmental disabilities out of Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to cap the costs of the state’s Medicaid services programs.

Brownback is in the process of implementing a plan to shift services to managed-care plans administered by for-profit insurance companies, to be called KanCare.

Ward

Ward strongly criticized Landwehr, the chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, for delaying consideration of the exception. At one point, he urged the House to “keep your big-boy pants on, today’s the day.”

But as it turned out, it wasn’t the day.

Landwehr and her allies succeeded in keeping Ward’s amendment from coming to a floor vote by getting the underlying bill sent back to committee on a 69-54 vote.

Landwehr

“I would be happy to have two or three weeks of hearings on this (disabilities) issue because it’s major,” Landwehr said. “I understand these budgets, I actually know some of these kids as friends and family and neighbors that are receiving these services. I talk to the parents. To make a policy change like this on the floor is not doing a service to them.”

Ward said after the meeting that the bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee to kill it, but he plans to bring it up again when the Legislature reconvenes for its wrap-up session late next month.

Providers, parents and others in the developmental disabilities community have been lobbying for an exemption from KanCare, out of concern that the change would be too disruptive to mentally fragile individuals receiving home- and community-based services. Read More »

House OKs stronger ethics rules for Bioscience Authority

TOPEKA — The House of Representatives today overwhelmingly supported a measure to try to prevent conflict of interest by board members and staff of the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

House Substitute for Senate Bill 40, carried on the floor by Rep. Jo Ann Pottorff, R-Wichita, seeks to stop KBA officials from benefiting from the state-supported agency’s business-development grants.

The bill would prohibit board members, employees, agents or advisors of the authority from directly benefiting from authority contracts or transactions.

A person with a conflict would have to either resign from the authority or divest themselves of the financial interest creating the conflict.

At present, the authority only requires its board members to recuse themselves from participating in issues in which they have a conflict.

The new bill does allow board members and employees to keep their positions in cases of indirect benefits from agency decisions, as long as they disclose the indirect conflict in writing and recuse themselves from participating on the issue.

In a written response to an inquiry from The Eagle, authority board Chairman Dan Watkins did not take a position on the bill.

“The KBA has been, and remains, committed to meeting a high standard of integrity in its operations and investments,” the statement said. “This bill provides added measures to address conflicts that may be presented and, as with our prior statutory and policy provisions, the KBA plans to adhere to them.”

The bill is part of the fallout from a year of investigation and a lengthy audit of the agency, prompted by Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.

Among the audit’s findings were two cases of potential conflict:

  • A company called NanoScale Inc. received four Bioscience Authority grants totaling $675,000. Bill Sanford, an authority board member who now serves as vice chairman, owns 14 percent of NanoScale and is chairman of the board of the company, according to the audit. Board minutes and interviews indicated that Sanford recused himself from the discussions and votes on the grants benefiting NanoScale.

  • Former authority board member Angela Kreps voted for contracts between the agency and KansasBio, a private bioscience trade association, according to the audit. Kreps is president of KansasBio. From 2006 to 2010, the authority contracted with KansasBio for $100,000 each year to stage a trade conference. The audit found Kreps voted on spending plans including the KansasBio contracts in 2008 and 2009.

The Senate Commerce Committee, led by Wagle, has held several hearings on allegations of mis-spending and other issues involving the authority and had tried to pass a similar bill.

However, the Senate bill is stalled in the Ethics and Elections Committee and Senate leaders have been reluctant to move forward, concerned that controversy around the agency could compromise its mission of creating jobs by encouraging bioscience businesses to start in or move to Kansas.

Wagle said the House version of the conflict-of-interest bill is actually stronger than the one the senators had proposed.

The Senate bill would prohibit authority board members and officers from benefiting from the agency’s decisions, but did not specify that they would have to resign or divest their interest in case of a conflict.

“Their bill’s better than ours,” Wagle said.

The House bill was advanced on a unanimous voice vote with a final vote expected Friday.

House and Senate negotiate tax cuts; details uncertain

TOPEKA — House and Senate negotiators plan to continue their slog through the details of two income tax reduction bills today.

After two days of meetings, the six-member group has yet to formally agree on anything, though they’ve asked legislative researchers to explore the costs of more than a dozen changes to the tax code. The most expensive aspect of negotiations remains untouched: How much should individual income taxes be reduced?

Still, some themes are emerging.

Senators are poised to agree with House members on phasing out non-wage income taxes for a wide variety of businesses that includes limited liability companies, subchapter S corporations and sole proprietors. Gov. Sam Brownback has pushed for the immediate elimination of that tax and equates it to shooting adrenaline into the hearts of businesses.

But the roughly $180 million per year in lost revenue that would otherwise fund state services has lawmakers searching for ways to ease the sticker shock. The House plan senators have shown initial support for starts in 2013 with three years of exempting the first $100,000 of non-wage income taxes for those business types. It exempts the first $250,000 of income in 2016 and 2017 before eliminating the tax altogether.

Both House and Senate negotiators agreed that the food sales tax refund available to low-income families should stay in place, instead of being repealed to help pay for the tax cuts. A proposed elimination of sales tax on groceries approved by the House appears unlikely to survive negotiations because it would add about $320 million to the cost of the plan.

The two plans being discussed each cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which many opponents worry would erode essential state services that have already been cut as result of the Great Recession. Read More »

Capital city divided by Congress redistricting plan; East Topeka goes west and West Topeka goes east

TOPEKA — After an hour of debate and Democratic accusations of Republicans playing politics with district maps, the state House passed a plan that divides the capital city between two congressional districts.

The House voted 77-43, along nearly party lines, to advance a map splitting Topeka between the 1st and 2nd congressional districts.

At present, Topeka is entirely a part of the 2nd District.

Under the map passed today — dubbed “Bob Dole 1″ although the iconic former Republican senator had no role in putting it together — the east side of Topeka will be combined with Kansas’ westernmost congressional district, while the west side of the city will remain in an eastern Kansas district.

The map accomplishes that by creating a peninsula from the 1st District through Osage County north into the divided Shawnee County.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis blasted Republicans for, in his view, failing to follow guidelines passed at the committee level to keep together “communities of interest.”

He proposed an amendment that would have made those guidelines a matter of state law.

“The fact of the matter is we’re not following the guidelines and I think most of the people in this room know that,” Davis said.

He said the Republican lawmakers “adopt (guidelines) in committee because they sound nice,” and then ignore them on the floor “to achieve whatever political ends” they want.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, took the rare step of going to the well himself to argue against Davis’ amendment.

He called the amendment “really in my view an effort to make it more likely to have a court challenge by someone who is aggrieved by this.”

All four Kansas congressional districts are currently in Republican hands. However, the 2nd District has elected a Democrat as recently as 2006, when it sent former Rep. Nancy Boyda to Washington.

Democrats say the map change will shuffle largely minority and Democratic neighborhoods of east Topeka into the overwhelmingly Republican 1st District, which reaches about 400 miles west to the Colorado border. West Topeka — whiter and more Republican-leaning, will remain in the 2nd District, an L-shaped district hugging the Nebraska and Missouri borders.

To get to the final result, Republicans had to overcome two proposed amendments, by Reps. Annie Keuther, D-Topeka and Joe Patton, R-Topeka, who sought to keep their city in a single district.

“The 1st District is a rural, agricultural district,” said Minority Leader Paul Davis “We ought to keep it that way.”

Davis said Keuther’s proposed map would do “the least amount of harm” of any map yet proposed because fewer than 5 percent of Kansans would be shifted from one district to another.

The Keuther bill encountered some opposition from representatives in Geary and Riley counties, because it would have preserved a current split between Fort Riley, now in the 2nd District, and Junction City, the military base’s main bedroom community, which is now in the 1st District.

In addition to passing the congressional map, the House made some tweaks to their proposed state House districts.

One change shifted a strip of territory in the Cheney area from 101st District Rep. Joe Siewart, R-Pretty Prairie, to 93rd District Rep. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain.

Both lawmakers said they favored the change.

The House bill also eliminated a line dividing the town of Erie between two state House districts.

The bill, House Substitute for House Substitute for Senate Bill 176, is expected to go to a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences between the chambers’ maps.

House defeats effort for constitutional amendment linked to school finance

TOPEKA — The House this morning shot down a resolution that could have put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to see if voters want to tell the Kansas Supreme Court it can’t direct the legislature how much to spend on schools.

The 79-44 vote fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Several Representatives who voted in favor of the bill Tuesday changed their votes to defeat the proposal.

Learn more about the proposal here.

Check back for updates.

Appeals court: No teeth in denture defense

False teeth can’t help you talk your way out of a license suspension for drunken driving.

So ruled the Kansas Court of Appeal in a Morris County case, where a DUI defendant argued that his dentures may have trapped alcohol in his mouth, causing him to blow a too-high reading on a police breath tester.

The case stemmed from a 2008 traffic stop in which breath testing showed the defendant, Gary Bolton, had a blood-alcohol level of .24 percent, well above the .08 percent limit for driving under the influence, according to court records.

Bolton challenged the results of the test in trying to stave off a decision by the Department of Revenue to suspend his driver’s license.

He argued that police should have had him remove his dentures before he blew into the Intoxilyzer 8000. Across the country, DUI defense lawyers have had some success arguing that wearing dentures can trap alcohol or other substances in the mouth that can swing the results of a breath test from legal to intoxicated.

But in Friday’s decsion, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled that police had complied with a requirement that the subject of a breath test be kept under observation at least 20 minutes to allow mouth alcohol to dissipate and ensure they don’t put anything else in their mouth.

“Bolton argues that letting him blow into the machine with dentures in his mouth violated the directive not to let him ‘have oral intake of anything.’ But it certainly did not do so under the ordinary usage of the word intake: the dentures were already in Bolton’s mouth, and he did not take them in during the 22 minutes the officer observed him before the test,” said the appellate opinion, written by Judge Steve Leben. “Nor has Bolton provided any evidence that having dentures in one’s mouth affects the breath-test result in any way.”

The opinion said the only evidence in Bolton’s favor was a statement by the officer who gave him the test that if he’d known Bolton was wearing dentures, he’d have asked him to take them out.

“But the officer said he would have done this ‘just to be safe and avoid issues down the road,’ not because anyone had trained him to do so.” Leben wrote. “We conclude that an officer need not ask a driver to remove his or her dentures to comply with the established testing procedures.”

Jeremy Platt, one of the lawyers who represented Bolton, said he saw the decision as limited.

“All it says is that an officer doesn’t have to ask a person if they’re wearing dentures,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty important issue (because of) the possibility that some substance, alcohol, food or adhesive, could affect the intoxilizer test.”

Platt said Bolton has 30 days to decide whether he wants to appeal the appellate ruling to the state Supreme Court, but no decision on that has been made yet.

Ethics Commission fines Wichita Councilman O’Donnell $500 for e-mails

As his lawyer Steve Kearney (left) looks on, Wichita City Council member Michael O'Donnell answers question from the Governmental Ethics Commission.

TOPEKA — The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission has fined Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell $500 for using his government computer to send a campaign e-mail supporting a friend.

The commission took that action after deadlocking on a vote to assess a $234 fine.

O’Donnell had agreed to a consent decree acknowledging that his actions violated state ethics law. Before the commissioners deliberated the fine, in both open and closed sessions, their lawyer had recommended that the penalty fall between $25 and $500.

The commission lawyer, Camille Nohe, advocated for a fine closer to $500, citing statements that O’Donnell made to newspapers, including The Wichita Eagle, shortly after the violation came to light.

She also said the fact that O’Donnell sent the offending e-mail during a City Council meeting also argued in favor of the higher end of the agreed penalty.

The e-mail at issue was sent by O’Donnell to 39 people on Oct. 4. It was an invitation to a political fundraiser on behalf of his friend, state Sen. Garrett Love, R-Montezuma.

O’Donnell, a freshman council member who is often on the short end of 6-1 council votes, initially said the complaint was a “political hit job” aimed at muting his conservative voice, including his opposition to an incentive package to spur development of a boutique hotel downtown.

Later, he apologized for criticizing his fellow council members and Mayor Carl Brewer.

Today, O’Donnell expressed contrition for violating the ethics law. Read More »

Brownback writes letter in opposition to ‘Ad Astra’ senate map

Brownback

TOPEKA — A letter from Gov. Sam Brownback says the “Ad Astra” redistricting map senators began debating Wednesday has “two very troubling features” and he urged the Senate to produce a new map.

“‘Ad Astra’ is out of step with the spirit of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle, and thus would be difficult for me to support,” the letter says.

That puts a cloud over the map, which was initially approved by the Senate but later held back for more debate and a final vote next week.

In the letter, Brownback focuses on the change in population proposed in the map, which has been approved by a senate panel. And he argues, as administration officials have before, Leavenworth County should its own senate district.

That’s a flash point for Democrats because it could block two Democrats out of their current districts (more about that). The county is currently represented by Democratic Sens. Tom Holland, of Baldwin City, and Kelly Kultala, of Kansas City. Holland ran against Brownback in the past election with Kultala as his running mate.

Democrats also say Brownback indicated he wouldn’t get involved in redistricting and broke his word by having his chief of staff testify before the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

But Brownback’s letter steers clear of anything explicitly political. Read More »

Senate flips position and approves altered Brownback tax plan

TOPEKA — Nine senators changed their vote on a modified version of Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax cut plan this morning and helped pass the bill in a 29-11 vote.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said she was told by senate leadership that the Governor’s office had applied a lot of pressure to get them to reconsider the bill.

McGinn was among those who voted against the bill earlier this morning in a 20-20 vote that killed it. But she and eight others changed their vote when the senate abruptly reconsidered the bill. (Others included Sens. Brungardt, Emler, Huntington, Kelsey, Longbine, Morris, Teichman and Umbarger.)

McGinn said she decided that she wanted a bill to bring to a conference committee where select members of the House and Senate negotiate the differences between proposals that have passed one of their houses.

Senate President Steve Morris declined to comment about whether the Governor’s office was involved in the discussions that led to the re-vote.

“There was a lot of interest in making sure we had something to go to conference,” he said. Read More »

Senate votes down altered Brownback income tax plan

TOPEKA – The Senate this morning voted down a heavily altered version of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax-cutting proposal, significantly reducing the chance that a sweeping income tax bill will be approved during this year’s legislative session.

The 20-20 vote effectively kills the bill unless the Senate decides to reconsider the bill and someone switches their vote.

Wichita Republican Sen. Les Donovan said he was disappointed and said some senators proposed amendments intended to vastly increase the price tag of the Governor’s plan.

The plan, as amended by a Senate panel, would have cost an estimated $105 million. After senators on Tuesday amended the plan to discontinue 6/10ths of a 1-cent sales tax approved in 2010 and retains a long list of tax credits and deductions that would have been eliminated under Brownback’s proposal, the cost ballooned to an estimated $800 million.

Secretary of Revenue Nick Jordan expressed disappointment in the Senate vote, but stopped short of saying the Brownback plan is dead for the year.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted 38-2 in favor of a bill that would give local governments $45 million a year for four years to provide property tax relief. Sens. Chris Steineger and Donovan opposed it. Read More »