Monthly Archives: May 2012

Prepping for court fight, House and Senate pass more redistricting maps

TOPEKA — Preparing to take their months-long redistricting battle to federal court, Republican Senate moderates and Republican House conservatives passed district maps they hope will beat their rivals before a three-judge panel that will open the case on Monday.

The senators passed a map called “Buffalo 30,” which favors moderate Republican incumbents over GOP conservatives, who control the House and the governorship and have announced plans to try to take control of the Senate.

The House turned its attention to the congressional districts, passing a map that splits the Democratic stronghold of Lawrence and strengthens the GOP’s chances of holding all four of Kansas’ seats in Congress.

The Buffalo 30 map is the second map senators have passed. With virtually no chance in the House, it was designed to give the Senate the strongest possible map for the coming court case.

The map has major implications for south-central Kansas Senate races.

It puts both Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover and Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, in the 16th District, which could mean a head-to-head battle between two prominent Senate conservatives in the August primary.

The map also carves conservative Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, out of the 25th Senate District, where she has announced plans to challenge moderate Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf.

The map also leaves Wichita businessman Gary Mason out of the 31st Senate District. Mason plans to challenge incumbent Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick and has said he will move to run against her if necessary.

Along with most of the conservatives in the Senate, Masterson and Abrams both criticized the map during the floor debate.

Masterson accused Senate redistricting committee Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, of pushing for a map similar to one he had once considered unacceptable.

Chuckling, Masterson likened it to a running gag on Saturday Night Live in which the late Chris Farley would open embarrassing celebrity interviews with the line “you remember when you said…”

“That (earlier map) was obviously gerrymandering, you remember what your response was to that?” Masterson asked Owens. “’That wasn’t serious, that was a conversation starter,’ well here’s the conversation and it’s a serious conversation … It’s ironically right in front of us now.”

Asked if he wanted to respond, Owens drew laughs in the chamber when he deadpanned “I have no comment, unless he’s referring to me as Chris Farley.”

After having failed multiple times to get one of his maps passed, Abrams didn’t seek a vote on a version the House had approved.

He said he repeatedly tried to draw maps that didn’t create incumbent vs. incumbent matchups and made numerous changes to accommodate critics.

“I have not much doubt what the outcome is going to be,” he said. “To that end, I think I will just have a seat and just say we know where it’s headed and I would suggest we just get there as quickly as we can.”

The Senate’s first district map, called “Ad Astra Revised,” was rejected by the House.

House members complained that the population deviations from district to district in the Ad Astra map were too large. They passed an Abrams-drawn map instead.

Population deviation is generally an important factor for courts considering redistricting plans, because the purpose is to account for population changes and equalize representation across the state.

Buffalo 30 gives the Senate leadership and majority a map with smaller deviations.

The Legislature is required to redraw the House, Senate, congressional and state Board of Education districts every 10 years.

With the House and Senate deeply divided, the decision is now destined for the courts, although there are differing opinions on whether state or federal courts will make the final call on the state offices.

The court review begins Monday with motion hearings at the Kansas City federal courthouse, where Johnson County Republican precinct committeewoman Robyn Essex has filed suit against Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Kobach, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, is closely linked to the conservative faction of the GOP.

In court papers filed his week, Kobach recommended the court choose from maps that have made it partway through the Legislature, or let him draw the maps.

Two Johnson County resident, Benjamin D. Craig and Larry Winn III, filed to intervene in the case on Friday. According to their filing, they have both been active in local politics and fear that some proposed maps would leave their rapidly growing county under-represented.

The three-judge panel on the case will include two Kansas district judges, Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil and Senior Judge John W. Lungstrom, and Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, chief judge of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Vratil and Lungstrom were appointed by the first President Bush; Briscoe was appointed by President Clinton.

Kathryn Vratil is Senate President John Vratil’s ex-wife.

Sen. Vratil, R-Overland Park, is a leader of the Senate’s moderate Republican faction.

While the Senate worked on its own districts Friday, the House passed a new map for congressional seats.

Under the new map, dubbed Kansas Six, east Lawrence would be part of a west Kansas district and west Lawrence would be part of an east Kansas district.

The House’s original map, rejected in the state Senate, had split Topeka in much the same fashion, with the east side of the city going to the western district and west Topeka in the eastern district.

The new map passed with the barest of majorities, 56-54 with 15 members absent or not voting.

The districts in the proposed map are considered favorable to incumbent Republicans who now hold all four seats in the congressional delegation.

During floor debate in the House, it was revealed that the sitting Congress members had reviewed the maps, although it was not made clear how much influence they had over the drawing of their districts.

The primary objection to the new map was that it dilutes voting strength of moderate- to liberal populations in Lawrence, hometown of the University of Kansas.

East Lawrence would be at the end of a peninsula linking it to the 1st Congressional District, which includes all of western Kansas and is dominated by conservative Republicans.

West Lawrence would be part of the 2nd District, which is now held by Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins, but is considered more of a swing district and sent Democrat Nancy Boyda to Washington from 2007 to 2009.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said her city and her party are being treated unfairly by Republicans, who want to dilute the Democratic vote and cement their control over the congressional delegation.

“We know that underlying agenda is there,” she said.

Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who carried the bill on the floor, acknowledged that the main reason to pass another map was to strengthen the House’s hand in the coming court case.

Splitting a city was necessary to balance populations among the districts, Kinzer said.

He said Lawrence being part of two districts could benefit the area because two congresspersons would need to pay attention to the city.

“Actually there is a real benefit to being split,” Kinzer said. “Having more representation on balance … can be a positive thing.”

House votes to criminalize DUI test refusals

TOPEKA – After a lengthy discussion of constitutional rights, the House has approved a bill that makes it a crime for suspected repeat offenders to refuse a drunk-driving test.

The same bill would also allow first-time DUI offenders and those whose licenses are suspended for other reasons to use small motor scooters to get around.

Under Senate Bill 60, drivers with a DUI conviction or prior refusal of a DUI test would automatically be guilty of a misdemeanor if they refuse a test. The penalty would be the same as for a DUI conviction.

The House passed the bill 103-13, but not without some concerns expressed by members that it “tramples” the right to remain silent when accused of a crime.

Rep. Sean Gatewood, D-Topeka, said he’s seen many drunk driving crashes and the harm they cause working as a firefighter and paramedic.

But he said he was not comfortable with making it a crime to refuse to take a breath or blood test.

“These are American citizens and they have the right to remain silent, which this bill sort of tramples on, because if you just stand there silent … then you’re a criminal,” Gatewood said. “You have your 4th and 5th Amendment rights … and I just think there is no greater ridge to stand on than the Constitution of the United States.”

Gatewood proposed to send the measure back to a House-Senate conference committee for further work, but that motion died on a 23-88 vote.

Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, who carried the bill on the floor, acknowledged that its impact on constitutional rights was an important issue, but on balance she supported it.

She said courts are being clogged with repeat offenders who refuse the DUI test and take their chances with a jury.

“The district attorney and county attorney association said the No. 1 use of their attorneys for jury trials were on DUI refusals,” Colloton said. “It was using a tremendous amount of manpower throughout the state for jury trials on those people who had multiple convictions for DUI and were smart in refusing to have a DUI test.”

“The alcoholic was well aware of the tactic of refusing and we wanted to stop that,” Colloton added.

Some lawmakers said stopping drunk drivers outweighed the constitutional questions.

“I would gladly walk the line, breathe into the tube and draw my blood if it would get repeat drunk drivers off the road,” said Rep. Bill Otto, R-LeRoy. “This is about people who are killing people.”

“This is not about constitutional rights,” he continued. “What about the constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? (a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution) When you’re killed by a drunk driver, they’ve deprived you of your life. Death penalty, when you did nothing wrong.”

Senate Bill 60 also includes a Wichita judge’s idea for giving motorists with suspended licenses a way to get around without driving.

The provision allows drivers with a single DUI or multiple suspensions for unpaid tickets or other issues to obtain a special license that would allow them to operate what the law calls “motorized bicycles.”

The main problem is that many people whose licenses are suspended still need to get to work, and in parts of the state without public transit, have no choice but to risk driving without a license, said Sedgwick County District Court Judge Phil Journey.

Journey proposed the provision when he was a state senator and who testified in support of it this year.

The problem is especially acute for low-income workers who lose their license because they can’t afford to pay a fine. They get caught multiple times and the penalties keep escalating, Journey said.

It’s costly for them and for taxpayers, who have to pay for multiple prosecutions and in some cases, jail time, Journey said.

The definition of a motorized bicycle includes mopeds and scooters of less than 50 cubic centimeters of engine displacement, less than 3.5 horsepower and automatic shifting. Such bikes usually weigh 180-200 pounds and can only go about 30-35 mph.

“The odds of getting hurt by someone on a moped are pretty slim,” Journey said.

Other provisions of the bill would:

• Require cities to turn over money from enhanced DUI fines to the state. Last year, the Legislature added $250 to DUI penalties to fund community corrections. About 40 percent of the DUI prosecutions are done in city-run municipal courts and the cities have been keeping the extra fine money because last year’s DUI law didn’t specify they had to give it up.

• Allow first-time DUI offenders to drive their employers’ company cars without an ignition interlock required on personal vehicles. The interlock prevents operation of the car unless the driver can blow a clean breath sample into the device.

The bill is expected to go to the Senate on Friday, where it is expected to pass easily.

New projections show more aggressive tax cut plan creates more jobs

TOPEKA — A new set of projections released to House Republicans this afternoon show that the aggressive and deficit-inducing tax cut bill on Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk would create more jobs than a less-aggressive plan negotiated by House and Senate Republicans.

The new numbers came as House Republicans debated a procedural vote that would pave the way for the House to vote on the alternative tax plan, which reduces individual income tax rates and phases out nonwage income taxes for about 191,000 limited liability companies, subchapter S corporations and sole proprietorships.

Figures produced by the Department of Revenue using computer software that projects jobs gained in relation to tax cuts show the more aggressive cuts would produce almost 23,000 new jobs on top of natural growth. The negotiated plan, which Brownback has said he’d prefer, would generate  just over 21,000 jobs beyond natural growth. The projections do not show what assumptions were included in the calculation.

Some conservative Republicans are pushing to kill the negotiated plan so that Brownback will sign into law the more aggressive plan, which is projected by legislative researchers to cause a budget deficit in 2018 of more than $2 billion.

“Republicans know when you cut taxes dramatically that you’re actually going to increase tax revenues,” said Overland Park Republican Rep. Charlotte O’Hara.

Brownback administration officials are urging conservatives to approve the negotiated plan because it would put less strain on the budget and allow the state to more aggressively pay down debt.

Budget Director Steve Anderson urged the House to approve the negotiated plan while also saying that Brownback will sign the more aggressive bill into law if the negotiated proposal isn’t approved.

He said having the two bills is like a Miss America contest. “We’ve got two beautiful options here,” he said.

But moderate Republicans, Democrats and some tax policy experts say the software used to generate the job creation numbers can be easily manipulated. They don’t believe that cutting income taxes will lead to meaningful job growth and say that slashing one of the state’s top revenue sources could lead to massive cuts to state services after years of cutting back because of the recession.

Nick Johnson, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington D.C., said there’s no solid evidence that tax cuts lead to strong job growth. And he said that the dynamic scoring methods being used by the Brownback administration don’t take into account the negative impacts of deep cuts to state services.

“What’s on the table there is really unproven and very dramatic,” he said. “It’s as likely to do more harm than good to the state.”

Tax compromise reached; House will vote first

House and Senate negotiators discuss a new tax cut proposal today as lobbyists and journalists observe.

TOPEKA — Kansas taxpayers would get to keep a little bit more of their earnings  and thousands of businesses would eventual not pay any taxes on their profits under a tax-cutting proposal House and Senate negotiators agreed on Wednesday.

Gov. Sam Brownback said he supports the plan and urged the House and Senate to approve it. The House could vote on the plan as early as this afternoon.

Some conservative Republicans in the House are expected to balk at the new tax plan because it is not as aggressive as a deficit-inducing proposal that lawmakers rammed through last week after a series of political maneuvers that enraged moderate Republicans and Democrats.

But, with Brownback’s support, it appears poised to pass.

Prospects are less clear in the Senate. Key lawmakers have been skeptical about how many jobs income tax cuts can generate and have raised concerns about how slicing away state revenues could impact the state’s ability to fund education and other services.

“What we need to do is somehow, some miracle, convince enough people on the Senate side to vote for this,” said Wichita Republican Sen. Les Donovan, who has been at the center of tax negotiations for months. “This is good for everybody in the state of Kansas.” Read More »

Kobach proposes courts — or he — redraw legislative districts

Kobach

TOPEKA – As the state Senate makes a last-ditch effort to draw district maps acceptable to moderate and conservative Republicans, Secretary of State Kris Kobach filed court papers asking that federal judges redistrict Kansas – and offering to draw the districts himself.

Kobach said the court could select from maps that have been submitted in the Legislature or draw their own. Or, his filing said, “alternatively Defendant (Kobach) stands ready to submit valid plans of legislative apportionment, congressional apportionment, and state Board of Education apportionment for the court’s consideration and issuance.”

The legal papers are in response to a lawsuit filed by Robyn Essex, a Republican precinct committeewoman from Olathe. Essex is represented in court by Brent E. Hayden, a Missouri lawyer who formerly served as chief of staff to Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson.

Both O’Neal and Kobach, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, are closely aligned with the conservative wing of their party. Conservatives are planning to challenge at least eight senators in the August primary in an effort to swing the Senate more to the right.

In a news conference, Kobach said he “fervently” hopes the Legislature does reach agreement on district maps.

“This task does not belong in the hands of a plaintiff and the secretary of state and three federal judges,” Kobach said. “This task belongs, under the Kansas Constitution, in the hands of the Legislature. Time is very short; they can still render this case moot. But we have to proceed.”

Essex’s case argues that the current House, Senate and congressional districts are unlawful because of wide population shifts since the districts were drawn 10 years ago. The Kansas Constitution tasks the Legislature with redrawing districts every 10 years to ensure equality of representation.

This year, redistricting has been held up by a political battle pitting moderate Republican senators against the House and conservatives in their own chamber.

A map that passed the Senate favors moderates, while the House has approved a map friendlier to conservatives.

While stopping short of endorsing or opposing any existing map, Kobach singled out the Senate for criticism.

He said if he is called on to draw districts, his guiding principles will be “that districts be compact, that communities of interest be preserved, and notions of fundamental fairness demand that you don’t gerrymander in a way to give one side or another an unfair advantage.

“I think one of the reasons the Senate has been so dysfunctional has been because they have abandoned those basic principals and have been torn apart by efforts to gerrymander (and) to take particular individuals out of districts. That simply has no place in redistricting.”

Kobach praised the House for passing maps that achieved “broad consensus” while the Senate’s map passed that body by a minimum majority.

“According to the House, and I think these are legitimate concerns; one is that one of the challengers was redistricted out of the district in which he would have challenged the sitting senator,” Kobach said. “The other concern is that the Senate map deviated populationwise more than is prudent.”

The challenger Kobach referenced is Wichita businessman Gary Mason, a political newcomer who has announced a challenge to Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

Senate redistricting Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, said the Senate is not dysfunctional, just politically divided. He said it’s no surprise that Kobach is taking the side of the more conservative House.

“I have to call it what it is,” Owens said. “There’s no question in anybody’s mind that the secretary of state’s leanings are very conservative, so he’s joined the crew of conservatives who blame the moderates.”

In Kobach’s response to the Essex lawsuit, he agreed with the plaintiff that it is unlikely that the Senate will create a district map that will also pass the House and Gov. Sam Brownback.

“We’re now at a point where the state is in grave danger of violating federal law,” Kobach said.

If they can’t reach accord on redistricting by the end of this week, he proposes that the court appoint a three-judge panel to pass the maps.

Kobach said the federal courts are the only venue that can take over redistricting from the Legislature. The state Supreme Court has the authority only to review maps passed by the Legislature and governor, he said.

“I’ve been a professor of constitutional law for much of my career,” he said, adding that he has taught classes on court decisions at issue in the case.

Owens, who is also a lawyer, said he believes the state will have jurisdiction on the House and Senate maps, not the federal courts as Kobach maintains.

“I’m very surprised to see that an attorney with his (Kobach’s) national involvements would make a statement like that when it’s very clear that the jurisdiction for the state issues is in the state Supreme Court,” he said. “They have original jurisdiction on a mandamus action dealing with the maps.”

He said the federal court would likely defer the state legislative maps to the Kansas court. The congressional map would probably be the only one decided at the federal level, he added.

Throughout the day, a working group of seven senators – three conservative Republicans, three moderate Republicans and one Democrat – went through the tedious process of trying to draft a map that might gain a broader consensus.

Sitting in the basement office of the Legislative Research Department, they used mapping software to move district lines around, trying to meet as many senators’ preferences as possible.

At the end of the day, no new maps emerged from the process. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka and the lone Democrat in the group, said the process will continue Thursday.

A transit tax and Tuesday’s vote to avoid bus cuts

By Bill Wilson

A few locker room notes from Tuesday’s transit discussion at City Hall.

• The 4-3 vote to approve Janet Miller’s compromise cuts to save transit came as a surprise on press row.

The swing vote, council member James Clendenin, didn’t voice much approval of Miller’s ideas during council discussion, instead expressing concern about the loss of some neighborhood cleanups and street maintenance, along with the quick pace of Miller’s 11th-hour plan to scale back the two services and delay Kennedy Plaza renovations at Century II for a year.

That pace clearly bothered council members Lavonta Williams and Michael O’Donnell, as well. Meanwhile, council member Jeff Longwell was focused on the inefficiency of the westside connector, which serves an average of 52 riders per day.

Perhaps Mayor Carl Brewer deserves some of the credit, for his brief interjection that council members were “trying to save projects in their own district” at the expense of a “citywide” transit system.

Read More »

Legislative limbo: Lawmakers fret over budget, hotel rooms as session drags on

TOPEKA — The House and Senate standoff continues today.

Lawmakers are entrenched, largely because of disputes between moderate Republicans in the Senate and conservatives in the House, and the acrimony is delaying meetings and extending the legislative session, which is already three days beyond its usual 90-day session.

House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, this morning told House GOP members that the state budget hinges on whether the Senate will vote on a new tax-cutting plan or if the budget will be adjusted for the massive tax-cut bill that Gov. Sam Brownback could sign in coming days.

The bill headed toward Brownback would give lawmakers less opportunity to provide state workers with a 1 percent cost of living pay increase and a host of other issues debated by budget committee members. But if the Senate approves an alternative plan with a smaller price tag, it could free up some money to add to ending balances or to spend on education, pay raises or other items.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the bill headed toward Brownback “is going to be devastating.”

Read More »

Senate president delays redistricting vote after GOP caucus meltdown

TOPEKA – With the balance of power in the Senate at stake and after an acrimonious meltdown in the Republican caucus, Senate President Steve Morris held off bringing the contentious issue of redistricting to a floor vote today.

Senators came to the floor late today expecting to vote on a map called “Buffalo 30,” which creates districts friendly to moderate Republican incumbents who have been targeted for replacement by the conservative wing of their party.

But when he gaveled the Senate to order, Morris announced that he would be opening negotiations to try to develop a compromise map to bridge the chasm between the “traditional” Republicans and the more conservative elements.

He put off further discussion until 2 p.m. Wednesday at the earliest.

Following the meeting, Morris said he would probably put together a working group of three conservative Republicans, three moderate Republicans and a Democrat to try to hammer out a plan.

Read More »

Kansas House approves sex and drug bills

TOPEKA — The Kansas House moved today to ease penalties on some small-time drug offenders and to take employers’ addresses off the state sex offender web site.

House Bill 2318 would link the penalties for drug possession to the amount of drugs actually possessed.

Primarily, it would allow judges more discretion when sentencing low-level drug offenders who have a single prior conviction on their record, when they either possess small amounts of drugs for personal use or sell small quantities to support their own drug habit, said Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, who carried the bill on the floor of the House.

At present, the offenses are considered “presumptive prison” on the state drug-crime sentencing grid. That means a judge who wants to give a lesser sentence has to make and state specific findings to justify a departure from the prison terms in the grid, Colloton said.

Under HB 2318, the offenses would be a “border box” on the grid.

Colloton said that would give judges more of a choice on whether to order prison time for low level repeat drug offenders, or send them to a treatment program if they think that might be more effective in addressing the problem.

In addition to potentially lowering the penalties for minor offenders, the bill would create harsher penalties for large-scale manufacturers and dealers of illegal drugs.

However, Colloton said those sentences are unlikely to come into play since those types of prosecutions are far more likely to be handled at the federal level.

The final vote was 94-23.

Also at Colloton’s urging, the House approved a bill to delete employers’ names and addresses from a state sex-offender web site.

The measure was part of House Bill 2568, written to eliminate unintended consequences from last year’s passage of the Kansas version of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

The act, named for the murdered son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, mandates strict reporting requirements for sex offenders and that the information from the reports be published by the state in an online database.

Colloton said including work addresses created a problem for businesses that hire ex offenders who have served their time in prison. She said the business people told her they were reluctant to hire those who had committed sexually related crimes, because they did not want their companies and/or addresses listed on the offender database.

The work addresses of sex offenders would still be public information and available on request, she said.

In addition, the bill also removes hospitals from a list of treatment facilities that must report to the state when they admit a registered sex offender.

Colloton said the Via Christi health system in Wichita was among those who requested the change, because as written, the law would require hospitals to background-check all incoming patients for prior sex offenses.

The law was actually aimed at reporting offenders in institutions such as drug- and mental-health treatment facilities and was not intended to burden general hospitals, Colloton said.

She said the attorney general’s office has decided not to enforce the requirement on hospitals for the time being, to give the Legislature time to clarify the law.

The bill passed the House 114-2.

Both bills will now proceed to the governor’s desk.

Negotiators set, then cancel, meeting on tax-cut compromise

Gov. Brownback chats with a lawmaker and a lobbyist in the Statehouse this morning.

UPDATE: Republican Rep. Richard Carlson said that House and Senate negotiators will not meet at their planned time and that the meeting is delayed until further notice.

 

TOPEKA — House and Senate negotiators plan to meet today to tweak an agreement they reached about a week ago in hopes of sending Gov. Sam Brownback a more palatable bill.

Heading toward Brownback’s desk is a tax-cutting bill that would eliminate nonwage income taxes on 191,000 businesses in the state and lower individual income tax rates. But projections show it could put the state in a $2 billion or more deficit by 2017. Brownback has said he can make it work and that he is prepared to sign it. But he also said he would prefer a bill negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee.

Wichita Republican Sen. Les Donovan said today that the tax conference committee will meet again and make some changes to the proposal that Republican negotiators agreed on. That plan calls for more modest tax cuts: phased in cuts for nonwage business income tax, slightly lower individual income tax cuts and property tax relief. The proposal already shows it would leave a budget surplus through 2017.

Last week, the Senate was about to vote on the negotiated tax plan. But House leaders heard the Senate would kill the bill and quickly approved the larger tax cut bill that senators said they had approved only to allow for negotiations on a tax plan.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, this morning told House Republicans that he, Senate President Steve Morris and Brownback met this morning and that Morris asked Brownback to veto the tax cut bill awaiting a signature and that, if Brownback vetoes it, the Senate would take up the negotiated tax plan. Brownback reportedly declined.

Brownback today said he wouldn’t comment on private discussions. But he said he wants to lower the top individual income tax bracket below 5 percent and eliminate nonwage income taxes for most businesses.

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, confirmed that Brownback does not intend to veto the bill.