Newsletter - Weeks Ten and Eleven

Dear Friends,

I hope you had a really Happy Easter. Though KU was not successful in its game vs. Michigan, a strong congratulations goes out to Wichita State for reaching the Final Four. I know weíll all be cheering on the Shockers this weekend when they play in Atlanta.

I thought you might be interested in reading this piece Leawood Lifestyle wrote on my family and I entitled ďOne Familyís Capital IdeaĒ.

The last two weeks have gotten us close to the end of the regular part of the legislative session, as the Senate voted on a large amount of legislation. In past years, the legislature has used the veto session in May to negotiate agreements on bills, but that changed under the new leadership Ė this year, our goal is to have the bulk of our work complete on conference committee reports by Friday, April 5 Ė which is the end of the regular session.

In an effort to reach that goal, last week, we adjourned mid-week to allow staff to prepare the conference committees for their work, which we hope to receive this week on the floor Ė including the budget and tax reform. As those committees produce reports, both the House and Senate will vote on them, and if they are adopted in both chambers, they will go to the Governor.

So far, seven bills that have passed the legislature have been signed by the Governor. Last week, the Governor signed the legislation creating a federal system for the Kansas Court of Appeals. On Monday, the Governor signed six addition bills, which you can read about by clicking here.

As for our activities, below I go over several of the items we have voted on. If you have any questions, donít hesitate to contact me.

Budget
Keeping Kansas on track towards a new era of fiscal responsibility is an important goal for our state. I believe that was accomplished in the Senate budget. which has an ending balance of $492.0 million in FY 2014 and $377.7 million in FY 2015 - this includes the current year to date revenue dollars which are above projected estimates.

This is part of the Governorís proposal for two-year budget cycle to allow for a more comprehensive forecast for state expenditures and to elevate pressure from state departments by providing a two-year outlook for budgeting projections.

The budget includes the Governor's recommendation to hold K-12 education at current funding levels. Additional legislation will be considered after the annual April break to consider supplementary funding requests of state agencies, departments and programs.

This was the first time the Senate considered a budget proposal under a pay-go rule, which requires any amendment that spends additional money have a method in it to pay for the costs. The following amendments were added to the bill:

  • Technical amendment which adjusted funding amounts with in the bill that were left out during the drafting of the bill.
  • Restores $5 million in funding to KU Cancer Research Center and to the K-State Animal Research facility
  • Transfers $25,000 to the sexual violent predator expense fund operated by the Attorney General's office
  • Transfers $7 million dollars for the Governor's "Kansas Reads to Succeed" initiative to the Children's Initiative fund for early childhood block grant funding in the event the Governor's initiative is not signed into law
  • Allows Governor Brownback to approve Medicaid expansion program but is subject to legislative oversight.
There were numerous other amendments that failed to get the necessary votes. Senate Substitute for HB 2143 passed, March 21st by a vote of 24-16. I voted for this budget. I was pleased to see a budget that is fiscally responsible, and I look forward to seeing what the conference committee produces.

Taxes
Currently, the House and Senate are working on ironing out differences between their two different approach to taxes. The Senate plan retains the 6.3% sales tax but includes a defined path to zero for the income tax. The House plan allows the sales tax to sunset back to 5.7%, and does have an income tax cut provision, but reductions would be triggered by growth in state revenues. I look forward to reporting on the progress of that conference committee if and when it produces a report we can vote on.

KanCare oversight committee (HB 2025)
Thursday, the Senate passed HB 2025 which establishes the Robert G. (Bob) Bethell Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services and KanCare Oversight. If passed, the committee would consist of eleven members from the legislature and would be required to meet at least three times when the legislature is in session and at least once during each of the second, third, and fourth calendar quarters. This committee would provide oversight of the administration of KanCare by those accountable to the people, elected members of the legislature.

According to HB 2025, state agencies would be required to provide to the committee data and information on KanCare programs, including pay for performance measures, quality measures and enrollment and disenrollment in specific plans, KanCare provider network date, and appeals and grievances made to the KanCare ombudsman. The committee would then be required to submit its own report to President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the House Committee on Health and Human Services, and the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare. It would also be able to introduce legislation as deemed necessary in performing its functions.

The Senate passed HB 2025 by a vote of 40 to 0. The bill is now headed to the Governorís desk for his signature.

Licensing for military personnel (HB 2078)
On Thursday the Senate passed HB 2078 to allow for military service members to apply for licenses with the Board of Nursing and Board of Healing Arts.

Currently there are certain civilian educational requirements to obtain a license. This bill would allow military personnel to use training received in the military to serve as the educational requirements needed for state licensing for medical professionals. This bill would not require state regulatory agencies to issue licenses. Instead, it would allow the military education to be substituted for civilian training and the board would have final decision as to whether an individual meets the necessary requirements for a healthcare related license.

During debate on the floor, a similar bill HB 2077 was amended into HB 2078. HB 2077 is along the same lines in allowing the Board of licensing to grant honorably discharged members of the military to obtain licenses for training acquired during their service.

The Senate passed HB 2078 by a vote of 40 to 0. The bill is now headed to the Governorís desk.

Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act (HB 2203)
On Thursday, the Senate approved a proposal that would create the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act. This act, if signed into law, would affirm that the government shall not place burden on a personís right to exercise their religion. The bill outlines clear definitions for oneís religious freedoms and defines clear lines to which the government cannot cross if they should have a compelling interest to infringing on this constitutional right.

The Senate passed HB 2203 on Thursday, March 21 by a vote of 34-4. I voted yes. The bill is now headed to the Governorís desk.

Supporting our military school districts (HB 2109)
HB 2109 extends current law to allow school districts a second count of military students who are enrolled. Schools are currently allowed to double count military students, but the regulation is set to sun-set at the end of this year. Military students and teachers have a high turn-over rate; this bill simply allows school districts to plan accordingly for existing and new students that might be entering the school in the middle of the year.

Primarily, this allows school districts in areas with strong military presence, like Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth, to adjust to the high-turnover rates and to continue supporting the individuals, who without a momentís notice, could be deployed at any time. It also ensures those school districts have the means necessary to adequately educate military memberís children without lack of funding. The new sun-set would expire in 2018.

The Senate passed HB 2109 on Thursday, March 21 by a vote of 40-0. The bill is now headed to the Governorís desk.

Deer hunting permits for Wounded Warrior Veterans (HB 2030)
HB 2030, overwhelming supported by the House and Senate, would authorize the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to offer free hunting licenses for individuals wounded in combat while serving in the military. These licenses would be reserved for wounded warriors living outside of Kansas. In order to select the individuals who would receive the licenses t

he bill would allow KDWPT to conduct random drawings to award veterans with an authorized Kansas deer hunting permit. The wound warrior permits would still be subject to certain restrictions of the hunting season, equipment style or other regulations already outlined in state law. The bill limits the number of permits to ten per year.

The Senate passed HB 2030 on Thursday, March 21 by a vote of 40 to 0. The bill is now headed to the Governorís desk.

KDOT/KTA partnership proposal (HB 2243)
In order to get a long term handle on the size and scope of government in Kansas, we need to look for areas we can consolidate and marge departments to avoid duplication. Along these lines, in his State of the State address at the beginning of the session, Governor Brownback asked the legislature to authorize the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) to oversee the Kansas Turnpike Authority (KTA) in order to allow for greater efficiencies to be made and to help in reducing the size of state government. The Senate, in an effort to assist the governor in allowing more cooperation between the two agencies, debated HB 2234, a bill that would expand the authority for KTA and KDOT to contract with each other.

During debate on HB 2243 on the Senate floor, an amendment was adopted which would give the authority to KDOT to use any bond interest or toll revenue to build a maintenance fund for future repairs on Kansas highways. This will allow the state to provide any necessary maintenance in the future without having to request funding from the legislature or issue more bonds in order to pay for road repairs in the future.

The Senate passed HB 2243 by a vote of 26-14 on Wednesday, March 27. I voted yes.

Kansas Reads to Succeed Act (Senate Sub HB 2140)
As you have seen from previous newsletters, getting a firm hold on our education system is a priority of mine Ė not just in terms of the funding mechanism but also ensuring the quality of our schools is as high as it can possibly be. In that regard, one of the governorís legislative goals for the 2013 session is to increase the reading proficiency of 4th graders. In 2011, the National Assessment for Educational Progress scores showed that 29 percent of 4th graders in Kansas read below the ďbasicĒ level and the National Center for Education Statistics states that 40 states are higher than Kansas on 4th grade reading. To respond to this problem, the governor put forth a plan targeting funding for literacy prevention and intervention programs for young children, including a statewide retention policy for 3rd graders, who are not at a reading level and During floor debate on Tuesday, an amendment was offered to change the retention grade level from 3rd grad to 1st grade. The amendment was adopted by voice vote. The program will now focus on developing interventions starting in kindergarten and first grade instead of the second and third grade.

Sub HB 2140 is only applicable to school districts that have a higher-than-statewide average of students who are scoring at the lowest achievement standard on the most recent statewide assessment. The bill also establishes the Kansas Reads to Succeed Task Force and awards school districts based on improvement in reading proficiency at the second grade level. If signed into law, the measure would take affect at the beginning of the school year in 2016-2017.

The Senate passed Sub for HB 2140 by a vote of 30-10 on Wednesday, March 27. I voted yes.

Unemployment Insurance (HB 2105)
Part of making Kansas economically competitive is ensuring our regulations on business make sense and are functioning in the way they are intended. Along those lines, this week the Senate passed HB 2105 which would revise current employment security laws, commonly referred to as Unemployment Insurance or UI. Unemployment Insurance is a partnership between the federal government and the state. Almost all wage and salary workers are covered by the program, which provides an important safety net for employees who are laid-off.

Currently, the UI fund is depleted due to an increased unemployment rate, nationally, because of hard economic times. HB 2105 addresses this concern by increasing the amount businesses pay for Unemployment Insurance and reducing the weeks an individual can claim benefits.

A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows by lowering the duration an individual can receive benefits you create an incentive to find full-time employment before the benefits expire. By increasing the amount employers pay into the fund, we can ensure that the fund can retain a healthy balance in the future for those who require assistance.

The Senate passed HB 2501 by a vote of 30 to 10 on Wednesday March 27th.

Telecommunications deregulation (HB 2201)
Have you ever wondered what the Kansas Universal Fund Fee is on your phone bill?

The answer is this: Many states, including Kansas, have a Universal Service Fund which is paid for by which every wired and wireless phone user as a part of their monthly phone bill. Itís essentially a ďphone taxĒ.

The Kansas Universal Service Fund (KUSF) was enacted by the 1996 Kansas Legislature to support access to phone service for Kansans living in rural areas where access is more difficult and costly to provide. However, the size of the fund is currently at over $60 million, large compared to the Universal Service Funds of other states.

As telecommunication begins to modernize, focus has started to turn from providing access to wired phone service to access to more wireless phone service and broadband Internet service. With this in mind, the Senate passed a telecommunication deregulation bill that includes a reduction in the KUSF. The bill, HB 2201, would provide for reductions to the KUSF of about $10 million. Such a reduction would directly benefit all Kansas consumers by lessening the fees assessed to them on their phone bills.

While the bill would provide some immediate relief to the consumer, but legislators also felt more review was needed in this area and therefore the bill also creates a study commission. This commission would will examine how KUSF funds are being distributed and whether further reductions can be made to better reflect modern telecommunication methods. The commission would also help ensure that telecommunication providers are given the regulatory flexibility to better advance the statewide telecommunication infrastructure.

The Senate passed HB 2201 by a vote of 36-4 on Wednesday, March 27. I supported this bill.

Regulatory certainty for IP-enabled devices
As I noted earlier in this newsletter, a focus of mine in the Senate is looking for ways to ensure that regulation upon businesses are limited, particularly on emerging technologies.

This week, the Senate passed HB 2326, which would protect Internet Protocol (IP)-based services from regulation by the Kansas Corporations Commission (KCC). IP is the broadband technology of the future that is already being deployed to meet consumer demand for popular applications that connect them in their daily lives including e-mail, Netflix, and Skype. This legislation would protect Kansas companies investing in IP-based services from unnecessary regulation by state agencies and ensure that policy regarding these services is set by the legislature.

However, while I liked the things included in this legislation, I was quite troubled by what the legislation did not include. Currently, companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink hurt consumers by only allowing their competitors to interconnect using aging technology with predatory pricing. This hurts competition and drives the price to the consumer on each and every landline and wireless phone, all to benefit certain incumbent companies at the expense of everyone else. This legislation should have addressed that issue but did not, and by passing it we removed any incentive for the companies I mentioned to change their policies.

The Senate passed HB 2326 by a vote of 37-1 on Wednesday, March 27. For the reasons I stated, I voted no.

Unlawful discharge of a firearm (HB 2052)
This week the Senate considered HB 2052, a bill that would establish a uniform state law addressing unlawful discharge of a firearm within or into any city. The bill would define the unlawful discharge of a firearm as the reckless discharge of any firearm within or into the corporate limits of a city and would make such a violation a misdemeanor. Additionally, the bill would provide for circumstances in which a firearm may be discharged into or within a city without being considered unlawful.

One of the circumstances for when a firearm may be discharged into or within a city without being considered unlawful would be in the case of lawful defense of a person or property. Cities would be prohibited from enacting ordinances that would penalize discharging a firearm even if done in defense of person or property. This bill would unify the law for all Kansans, ensuring them the ability to use a firearm lawfully to defend themselves or others anywhere in the state.

The Senate passed HB 2052 by a vote of 35 to 5 on Wednesday, March 27. I voted yes.

Conclusion
As always, if you have any particular concerns over these issues or any bill not mentioned, donít hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Jeff Melcher

Senator Jeff Melcher
Phone: 785-296-7301
Email: Jeff.Melcher@senate.ks.gov


Paid for by Melcher for Senate; Daniel Kjergaard, Treasurer