Fire alarm in the Statehouse – that’s one way to stop the debate

TOPEKA – Just when you think things at the Capitol are dragging, life gets interesting.

The House was in the middle of debating a procedural point – essentially arguing if they could or could not re-debate a measure allowing law enforcement to pull people over for not wearing a seat belt – when the emergency lights started flashing and klaxon blaring.

Rumor is a fire alarm triggered on the first floor of the Statehouse, but it could easily be a false alarm or dust kicked up from the renovation construction.

In the House at least, most people’s first reaction was to wait and see if the alarms such off. Then lawmakers started to slowly wander out.

Even in an emergency, the rules must be followed. Just before leaving, House Speaker Rep. Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchison, declared the House in recess.

Lawmakers, lobbyists, visitors and even journalists are milling about outside the building while the Topeka Fire Department checks out the alarm.

While the weather is lovely and it’s nice to be out side, this is a somewhat unwelcome disruption. Lawmakers are nearing the end of session, they could adjourn late tonight or early tomorrow.

After a busy night, the Senate is recessed to the sound of the gavel waiting for the House to take action on a handful of bills.

Earlier this morning, the House sent a energy bill to the governor’s desk. The measure way part of a negotiated agreement that allows one coal plant to be built in Western Kansas.

UPDATE: People are starting to trickle back in at 12:45 p.m. and the fire trucks are leaving so everything must have been given the all clear.

Topeka Fire Battalion Chief Ron Hufford said water leaked into a sensor in a construction area on the South side of the building triggering the fire alarm.

At 12:58 p.m., O’Neal gaveled the House back in.

House accepts Senate budget proposal, cuts 2.75 percent to state government

TOPEKA – In an unusual move, the state House of Representatives voted to accept a budget bill already passed by the Senate instead of debating a proposal of its own.

The motion to concur with Senate substitute for House Bill 2373 came from Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, who voted against the measure himself but said he wanted to vote to move the issue forward.

The motion narrowly passed 64-60. The bill now goes to the governor.

It is identical to a proposal passed by the Senate on Tuesday. It includes 2.75 percent across the board cuts to most state agencies including kindergarten through 12th grade education.

The measure fills all but $70 million of a $328 million budget gap lawmakers have been struggling to fill.

The Senate Taxation Committee is working on several tax proposals to help fill the rest of the gap.

Appropriations Chairman Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, urged House members to vote against the proposal, saying the chamber would have a second chance to debate its own proposal later Thursday afternoon.

“What we are doing here is we are taking the House completely out of the process,” Yoder said.

Last Friday, a House budget proposal failed to gain enough support to pass. The House Appropriations Committee had been working to develop a second proposal but there still didn’t seem to be enough support in the chamber to pass the second bill.

Lawmakers are already eight days into a wrapup session and usually the budget is in a negotiating committee by this time, Aurand argued.

“I just wanted to move this down the road,” he said.

Special events drinking bill passes the House

TOPEKA – The House voted 110-13 for a bill that allows alcohol to be served at special events like Final Friday.

House Bill 2180 allows cities to issue temporary special permits for events that can then serve drinks such as wine, strong beer or mixed drinks. Currently, events such as the River Festival can have outdoor beer gardens serving 3.2 beer in a confined area.

Wichita has pushed the bill as a way to enhance the quality of life in the city and to attract more young people to build lives in the city.

House expands health care coverage for 8,000 Kansas kids

TOPEKA – The Kansas House voted 75-48 to add $1.2 million to next year’s budget to expand health care coverage for moderate- and low-income children’

The money, matched with about $6 million in federal money, will help expand eligibility for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to families that are 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that equals an income between about $51,000 and $55,000 per year.

“It saves the state in the long run,” said Rep. Jill Quigley, R-Lenexa who offered the amendment.

The program would help prevent illness by helping about 8,000 more children access health care.

The House is debating the 2010 budget, which starts July 1. The House Appropriations Committee recommended spending $5.76 billion in the budget.

“What this budget tries to do is find a balance of what are all awful tough decisions,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, who chairs the chamber’s budget committee.

Every part of the state budget shared in the cuts, but kindergarten through 12th grade education was given a priority, he said.

The Senate is expected to debate it’s budget bill on Tuesday.

School bond bill stalls in committee

TOPEKA – A proposal that would have eliminated the state’s contribution to school bond payments isn’t coming out of committee this year.

Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, had hoped to work the bill today in the House Education Budget Committee, which he chairs, but there were not enough members present to vote on the measure.

Since Tuesday was the last time the committee was going to meet, the bill would not be moving to the House floor, he said.

April 4, is the last scheduled day for this year’s session and March 25 is the last day for committees to meet.

The state pays for a portion of the debt that local school districts take on when they sell bonds for construction projects. House Bill 2280 would have halted those contributions for bonds issued after it becomes law.

That means districts would either have had to hustle to issue bonds before the deadline or shifted the cost to district taxpayers. For Wichita School District, the move could have increased property taxes by about $152 million, Wichita district lobbyist Diane Gjerstad told the House Education Budget Committee during a prior hearing.

Wichita district voters approved a $370 million bond issue late last year. They were told that the bond issue would increase the property taxes on a $100,000 house by $42. Without the state’s payments, homeowners would see that rise to $53.50 a year on the same house.

While the measure might not be moving on, that doesn’t mean the idea can’t resurface elsewhere such as tacked onto another bill as an amendment.

Kansas House gives Goodwill Industries a sales tax exemption

TOPEKA – The House on Tuesday passed a bill that will exempt items purchased by Goodwill Industries from a sales tax.

House Bill 2299 now goes to the Senate. The exemption applies to items purchased for or by Goodwill Industries that help provided education, training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

A fiscal note on the bill estimated that Goodwill Industries would have paid about $38,000 to the state in fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, 2009.

The House amended the bill during debate to include a similar exemption for sales by All American Beef Battalion Inc. The exemption will apply to projects that help the beef cattle industry provide support and morale to members of the United States military.

Republicans fire back at Dems on stimulus aid

By Dion Lefler

Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives fired back this morning at Democratic leaders who accused them of rejecting federal stimulus aid for secondary education.

“It is absolutely false to claim that any member of the House would refuse stimulus dollars during these difficult economic times,” said the statement from the House Republican Leadership group. “The money will play a vital role as it will be utilized for job growth and building the economy.”

Today’s statement was a response to a statement Tuesday by House Democrats criticizing the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee.

The GOP members had rejected a budget amendment by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that would have incorporated into the state budget about $89.6 million for universities, colleges and trade schools.

Read More »

Under the dome next week

Here are some of the hearing scheduled in House and Senate committee meetings for next week. The list is preliminary and can change.

With four weeks left in the session, more of the action has shifted to debates on the House and Senate floor.

The House and Senate each publish daily calendars listing the hearings scheduled for the week and what bills might be debated in the chambers. The calendars are posted daily on the Kansas Legislature website.

March 9-13

Tuesday

House Health and Human Services, 1:30 p.m., room 531-N: testimony from supporters of SB 25, which would ban smoking in most public indoor spaces.

Wednesday

Senate Transportation, 8:30 a.m., room 136-N: hearing and possible vote on HB 2143, which creates a graduated driver’s license for teen drivers.

House Health and Human Services, 1:30 p.m., room 531-N: testimony from opponents of SB 25, which would ban smoking in most public indoor spaces.

Thursday

Senate Judiciary, 9:30 a.m., room 545-N: hear testimony on SB 279 which would increase the mandatory minimum jail time to10 years for people convicted of involuntary manslaughter while driving drunk.

Under the dome next week

Here’s a sampling of what will be going on under the dome next week.

The House and Senate each publish daily calendars listing the hearings scheduled for the week and what bills might be debated in the chambers. The calendars are posted daily on the Kansas Legislature website.

For March 2-6

Monday

House Education Sub-Committee, 9 a.m., Docking Room 711: hearing on HB 2199, concerning school districts and students with dyslexia.

Tuesday

Senate Commerce, 8:30 a.m., Room 545-N: hearing on SB 258, which would increase the cap set for worker compensation settlements and have the amount increase annually based on the Midwest cost of living index.

House Energy and Utilities, 9 a.m., Docking Room 783: hearing on HB 2328 which would make the first Thursday through Sunday in August a sales tax holidays for most clothing, equipment, school supplies and personal computers.

Senate Federal and State Affairs, 10:30 a.m., Room 136-N: continued hearing on SB 179 which redefines racial profiling and require law enforcement agencies to submit an annual report to the state Attorney General’s office on the number of complaints received.

Wednesday

House Education, 9 a.m., Docking Room 711: hearing on SB 84, which would incorporate personal financial literacy into state tests.

Thursday

Senate Transportation, 8:30 a.m., Room 136-N: a hearing and possible vote on multiple specialty license plates including support for Kansas arts, disabled veterans and a bill exempting “In God We Trust” plates from a startup fee.

House Commerce and Labor, 9 a.m., Docking Room 784: hearing on SB 160, which would increase the state minimum wage to the federal level.

Senate Federal and State Affairs, 10:30 a.m., Room 136-N: possible vote on SB 212, which would allow people to shipments from wineries at their homes and SB 213 which would allow liquor to be served at special events.

Coal bill clears the House

TOPEKA – The Kansas House this morning passed legislation that, among other things, seeks to resurrect plans for two western Kansas coal plants.

The vote was 79-44 – short of the 84 votes needed to override a promised veto by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

But the Republicans pushing the legislation – HB 2014 – say not to read too much into that. They’ve got weeks, probably, to shore up votes, and there are a lot of variables in play. Here are two:

1) Will Sebelius even be around to veto the bill? If she departs for Washington, will her successor, Mark Parkinson, be able to hold plant opponents together?

2) Will the bill get caught up with other measures, like it did last year, with lawmakers offering support for the coal plants in exchange for help on other bills?

The Senate, meanwhile, has similar legislation. Passage in the Senate is all but assured, and it’s likely the voters are there for an override attempt (they were last year anyway).

The debate, recall, centers on whether the state’s top regulator had the authority to block Sunflower Electric Power Corp.’s plans for two coal-fired power plants when the plants meet all existing environmental rules. The legislation would strip the discretion KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby used when he rejected the plants. He cited the plants’ carbon emissions as the reason.

The bill also contains provisions designed to make it easier for citizens to use their own solar panels and wind turbines to generate power, mandates renewable energy percentages for utilities, and calls for stricter state building energy codes.

Stay tuned. The debate over these coal plants dominated last year’s session, and it’s not going away this year.

– David Klepper, The Kansas City Star