News from the Kansas Legislature – Week 3

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Rep. Bill Sutton

The Sutton Capitol Report

SCHOOL DOLLARS IN THE NEWS

The big news late in the past week was the revelation, via a Legislative Post Audit report, that the Department of Education may have violated state law by exceeding its authority, improperly allocating $405 million in transportation funds over 30 years.

That prompted a letter from legislative leaders in both chambers to Jim Porter, Chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, asking for an independent forensic audit.

The Truth Caucus issued the following statement, with which I fully agree, in response to the Legislative Post Audit: “We are deeply concerned when taxpayer dollars appear to be misallocated in direct violation of state law. Elected legislators are constitutionally responsible as appropriators of the peoples’ money—not staff members or judges. We join with legislative leadership in calling for an independent, forensic audit that will further reveal the truth behind what happened and why. That process should be free of politics, with a focus on the rule of law as determined by Kansas statutes.

“A deeper issue is the complexity of the school finance formula, which created an environment for this type of significant mistake to occur, thereby potentially damaging the credibility of the formula itself. No transparency with no internal audits leaves the door wide open to mistakes and even corruption. As we consider school finance solutions, these factors should be considered – including more oversight and internal audits – so public trust can be restored.

“In the end, these are taxpayer dollars and the public deserves no less than a complete accounting of what happened and why, and assurances that errors like these will not happen in the future. Misuses such as these call into question the rationale for higher taxes when literally hundreds of millions in tax dollars have potentially been misappropriated in direct violation of legislative intent.”

The Kansas Attorney General believes the matter warrants further investigation by law enforcement. As of now, the Attorney General’s office has stated it supports a deeper independent audit and is monitoring the situation, but has not yet opened an investigation

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RALLY FOR LIFE

It was cold and wet, but that did not stop hundreds of pro-life Kansans from braving the weather and participating in the March for Life and Rally for Life this past Monday afternoon, which marked the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Many elected officials, including many members of the Kansas Truth Caucus, were present for the rally to support the cause of life.

During the past seven years, Kansas has taken remarkable steps and has transitioned to become one of the most pro-life states in the country. Thanks to the efforts of a pro-life governor, pro-life legislature, and allies at Kansans for Life, Kansas is leading the way in protecting the innocent among us.

That historic progress is now under threat by the Kansas Supreme Court. The Kansas Truth Caucus expressed its view on the case before the court regarding the live dismemberment ban, which has been in the Kansas Court system for over 2 ½ years.

SCHOOL CHOICE WEEK

January 21-27 was National School Choice Week and that included activities right here in Kansas. The main activities took place on Wednesday for “School Choice Day”, which included a rally inside the Capitol where many families who had been positive impacted by school choice were present.

In fact, there were 281 events throughout Kansas to “raise awareness about opportunity in education and spark conversations about what options are available – and what options parents want.” The cause of school choice is not going away, no matter how many in government try to act like it doesn’t exist. From state to state, it has been proven to work. Examples of success:
The Kansas Legislature enacted the Kansas Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship program in 2014. According to EdChoice, there are 292 students currently enrolled in the program, but up to 7% of Kansas students are eligible.

Many students across the country, including here in Kansas, are trapped in schools where they are underperforming. In fact, it is in the very Gannon case ping-ponging between the Kansas Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court that the core issue is the 25% of kids in Kansas who are not preforming up to standards.

RALLY 2018

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Caucus Conversation—School Finance

On Wednesday, the House Republican caucus heard from Rep. Blaine Finch, Chairman of the Special Committee on a Comprehensive Response to the School Finance Decision. Other Representatives serving on the interim committee were Rep. Campbell, Rep. Johnson, Rep. Trimmer, Rep. Waymaster, and Rep. Winn. The interim committee was charged to: review and analyze the recent Gannon v. State decision; identify the responses available to the Legislature and the consequences of each; and explore options to reduce or eliminate the perpetual cycle of conflict over school finance and end the perennial and recurrent threat of school closures.

Caucus members had a spirited discussion on school finance. Caucus members noted that the Article 6, Section 6 (b) did not specifically name K-12 Education. Rather the wording is: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Educational interests could include the financing of mental health services, like those referenced by Beloit USD #273 in a House Education Committee meeting (January 17). In addition, the Special Committee received information on wraparound services for K-12 students that are provided by other state agencies. Chairman Finch noted there is $96 million being spent for those types of services. Another discussion was if more money is appropriated to schools, how schools could absorb it with capacity issues, and hire more teachers, support personnel, etc.

Caucus members also discussed how the case was presented to the Supreme Court, including how the Legislature showed its work. Speaker Ryckman indicated it is important that an expert be involved in the case. Since it is important for an expert to be involved in the case, the Legislative Coordinating Council (LCC) hired an expert to perform a cost study by March 15. Once completed, that study will be peer reviewed, along with previous cost studies by Augenblick and Myers and Legislative Post Audit.

The Speaker emphasized that school finance is a math problem. 90 percent of the state’s budget is expended for: Education, KPERS, and Social Services. If $600 million is added to the K-12 system, the K-12 share of government could rise to 60 percent. It will be important to prioritize spending.

One piece of information that was brought up is the time and money that the State has spent on defending itself. According to KLRD, the Attorney General’s Office has expended almost $1.6 million, as of March 1, 2017. The Speaker noted that the House lead on this issue last session and will lead again year. It is also important to look beyond this year, looking at the fiscal impact on the out years.

Mental Health Task Force Report

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee heard the Mental Health Task Force Report. The Report was also heard by the Social Services Budget Committee on January 17. 2017 HB 2002 contained a proviso directing the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) to establish an 11-member task force to review the state’s mental health system. The task force members were: behavioral health providers; advocacy organizations; citizens with lived experiences; and other behavioral health experts. They focused on seven topics: Maximizing Federal Funding and Funding from other sources; crisis stabilization; inpatient capacity; privatization of services; nursing facilities for mental health; continuum of care for children and youth; and other recommendations.

The Task Force met 8 times between September and December 2017, with the meetings facilitated by the Kansas Health Institute (KHI). The task force came up with several recommendations, creating a priority list of 26 recommendations.
Click here to see the report.

State Finance Council

On Wednesday, the State Finance Council convened to consider action on the Lansing Correctional Facility project. 2017 HB 2002 called for the State Finance Council to approve the project following review and consultation with the Joint Committee on State Building Construction and the Legislative Budget Committee.

Those Committees discussed the project during interim meetings. The Council first considered the project on January 4, holding an informational briefing on January 11. The prison’s construction and maintenance will be through a lease purchase agreement with Core Civic. The prison’s operations will continue to be through the Department of Corrections. The Council approved the project with a 6-3 vote.

GOVERNOR BROWNBACK CONFIRMED AS AMBASSADOR-AT-LARGE FOR INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

On Wednesday, Governor Brownback’s nomination reached the floor of the U.S. Senate after months of delay. In October, his nomination was stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then having received a committee confirmation vote count of 11-10. Shortly after the new year, Governor Brownback was confirmed once again in the senate committee.

Following this, his nomination was brought to a vote on the floor. After a motion to invoke cloture passed, the confirmation vote totaled to 49 voting in the affirmative and 49 voting in the negative. Vice President Mike Pence then presided over the chamber and with his constitutional authority broke the tie, with a final vote count of 50 to 49, with two absences.

Brownback’s official resignation is set to take place at 3:00 p.m. on January 31. Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer will assume the governorship effective 3:00 p.m. in the statehouse. Prior, he will visit his hometown of Hays, KS, and then return to Topeka for the official proceedings.

REP. EMIL BERGQUIST SWORN IN

On January 23rd, Emil Bergquist (R-Park City) was sworn in as Representative of the 91st House District. Rep. Bergquist was elected by the precinct committeemen and committeewomen of the district via special election, with a vote count of 17-1, and effectively replaced Greg Lakin, now Chief Medical Officer of KDHE. Bergquist is a former mayor of Park City, KS, and serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, Government, Technology and Security Committee, as well as the Judiciary Committee.

KANSAS TEACHER OF THE YEAR HONORED

On Tuesday, the House honored Kansas Teacher of the Year winner, Samantha Neill and fellow Teacher of the Year finalists in HR 6042, presented by Rep. Brenda Dietrich. Neill is a Language Arts teacher at Buhler High School. Neill was selected from a group of 8 finalists, which was narrowed down from more than 100 nominations. Neill is now a candidate for National Teacher of the Year.

The 2018 finalists were: Gilbert Still Jr., 4th grade teacher at Northwest Elementary (USD #233 Dodge City); Bradley Weaver, elementary music teacher at Atchison Elementary (USD #409 Atchison); Jamie Manhart, junior high and high school journalism teacher at Silver Lake Junior-Senior High (USD #372 Silver Lake); Jennifer Donovan, elementary music teacher at Clear Creek Elementary in Shawnee (USD #232 De Soto); Angela Powers, a high school English teacher at Olathe Northwest High School (USD #233 Olathe); Megan Nagel, a 6th grade English language arts and science teacher at Santa Fe 5/6 Center in Newton (USD #373 Newton); and Sarah VenJohn, a high school mathematics teacher at Winfield High School (USD #465 Winfield).

Additional information on the Teacher of the Year Finalists can be found at:
http://www.ksde.org/Portals/0/Communications/2018-KTOY_Team.pdf