The fifth week of the 2018 Kansas Legislative Session was dominated by an address to the combined House and Senate by the new Governor, Dr. Jeff Colyer, on Wednesday. Around that address the business of the state began ramping up with several interesting bills being heard and previews of upcoming struggles over a number of issues.
Executive Order on Sexual Harassment.
The week began with Governor Colyer signing his first Executive Order aimed directly at combatting sexual harassment in Kansas. The order mandates training in how to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace for all employees and staff of executive branch agencies and anyone doing business with those agencies including vendors, service providers, and interns. The Governor made clear through the order and the subsequent news conference that no forms of sexual harassment will be tolerated and it will be combated wherever it is found.
State of the State 2.0
On Wednesday Governor Jeff Colyer addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate in what was quickly dubbed the State of the State 2.0. Members anxiously awaited the address as this would be the first opportunity for them to get a sense of the “new tone” the Governor had been promising. The signing of the Executive Order on Monday turned out to be a bit of a preview for what the Governor intended as he followed that up with a call for more transparency in State Government. The Governor stated his intention to sign a series of Executive Orders that would establish an internet site where Cabinet Agencies would present their activities, provide a list of public meetings, and establish a performance matrix so the citizens of Kansas can more easily see what their government is doing. He also stated his intent to order all executive branch employees to use only their official email accounts for doing business and not personal email. And finally he ordered that the first 100 pages of any Open Records Request would be free of charge to the one who requested it.
The Governor briefly touched on the issue of K12 School Finance at the end of his address with a call for the Legislature to send to him a plan that meets the requirements of the State Supreme Court while also requiring accountability for teachers and schools. He did not provide specifics about the solution but also did not walk back former Governor Brownback’s call for $600 million more in school aid spread out over the next five years. It remains to be seen what action the Legislature will take on the issue.
An attempt to add an amendment to an IT purchasing bill failed on a voter of 78-43 in the House this week. The amendment would have stated in no uncertain terms that Kansas rejects the new standards put in place by the FCC and would instead demand Net Neutrality for all vendors and internet contractors doing business with Kansas.
Senate Judiciary saw the beginning of a struggle between insurance agencies and trial lawyers over SB 296. The bill would allow non-use of a seat belt to be revealed to juries in motor vehicle injury lawsuits, something currently prohibited in Kansas. The thought by both sides is revealing this information could impact how much if any compensation juries award and insurance companies favor this while trial lawyers obviously oppose.
Office of the State Auditor
Legislation was introduced this week in the Senate to establish the Office of State Auditor as an elected position as it was in Kansas until the office was eliminated in 1975. An interesting side note on this legislation is if the auditor doesn’t identify enough waste or misspending to finance his/her office, the agency is eliminated.
A hearing was held in Senate Commerce on SB 339 Thursday that prompted interesting discussion. The bill, introduced by Senator Tom Holland, would look at reforming Workers Compensation benefits and make changes to the death benefits which have not been updated since the 1970s. Senator Holland stated he did not intend to work the bill this session as he understands it is a difficult issue and one that requires a great deal of time and effort to look into but that he hopes when the issue is addressed in the future this bill and the accompanying testimony will be considered. Senators Lynn, Bollier, and Baumgardner each agreed that while the bill and the underlying issue may not be tackled this session they are opposed to delaying for long and urged/called for both sides and all stakeholders to come together and find a working dialogue and solution on the Workers Compensation issue and updating what appears to be a very archaic system.
Budget Committees Wrap Up
Kansas’ new Governor Colyer gave his State of the State speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, but didn’t give much detail in his budget priorities. Legislators expect more specifics later, but also are holding their fire for the school finance debate to really kick in towards the end of March. Some budget subcommittees are starting to make their recommendations to the full budget committees, so officially the budget process is underway. The Senate Ways and Means Committee was wrapping up their work on a proposed new task force on transportation issues. They also heard from the Sec. of the KDADS on the need for more beds for mental health patients at the State Hospitals. Specifically at Osawatomie State Hospital. They discussed the possibility of renovating existing buildings the possibility of building new facilities. Federal funding is also at stake, as well as the growing need for mental health services. The committee also discussed the issue of having a budget rainy day fund, sometimes called a budget stabilization fund. Many states have these kind of funds, Kansas has one on the statute books, but has not been able to put any money away recently due to budget and revenue issues. The amounts to be put away and if or when they could be used later are part of the discussion.
The House Appropriations Committee also began hearing budget subcommittee reports. The committee delayed action on the budget for the Judicial Branch. The budget requests for judges and non judge employees sparked a contentious debate in committee, which led to requests for more information. A separate bill could be used to move that budget later on. The Judicial budget could be an important difference later in the budget negotiations between the House and Senate. The committee will soon hear from its Higher Ed subcommittee, and one issue will be workforce readiness and training. Funding for that in the Wichita south central Kansas area will be part of that, including funding for NAIR. The manufacturing sector has testified in favor of funding, the full committee should take this up soon. House Appropriations also heard from the Sec. of Agriculture about the Ag economy, and they also discussed the issue of Tyson wanting to open a processing facility in Kansas.
Looking ahead to next week the speed and work will continue to ramp up with a number of Committee Chairpersons warning their committees to expect long meetings and lots of them. Next week also sees the annual Republican Party Convention this year being held in Wichita and running throughout the weekend. It should be a great time for all who choose to attend.