2011 Session: Week 2

The second week of the 2011 legislative session was rather brief due to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and another round of measurable snow in the capitol city. However, work continued as committees meet regularly to address issues and legislation. In the next week or two, bills will start to make their way out of committee and head to the House floor for debate and final vote. As always, I’ll keep you updated. Please stay involved and let me know your thoughts on the measures under consideration.

The main focus of this session is, and will continue to be, addressing the $550 million budget deficit and repairing the Kansas economy. Again this week, the focus of most topics ultimately revolved around the bottom line. The first step in dealing with the budget came with introduction of House Bill 2014 which includes Governor Brownback’s proposal to freeze the state budget for the 2011 fiscal year. The measure makes approximately $120 million in cuts and orders several funding transfers. If passed in its current form, HB 2014 would create a $35 million surplus for the State General Fund in FY 2011. Considerable thought, compromise and consideration must be taken while considering HB 2014 but my hope is the House acts quickly on this legislation so we can turn our focus to the additional budget issues that need our attention.

This week Governor Brownback and Lt. Governor Colyer with House and Senate leaders announced plans to address the financial problems facing Kansas by implementing structural reform to state government. Issues specifically targeted for restructuring are KPERS, Medicaid and a definition of suitability concerning education. The Senate was charged with addressing our public employee retirement system, KPERS. Currently, KPERS has an unfunded liability of $8 billion dollars. In terms of actuarial solvency, recent studies have shown Kansas to have the second worst state pension system in the United States, falling only behind Illinois. Pension programs nationwide have been hit hard but the stuttering economy has compounded our structural deficiencies within the system and will continue to do so unless substantive reform measures are taken to improve the stability of the pension fund.

Governor Brownback assigned the Kansas House of Representatives with defining the term ‘suitable education.’ Existing school finance law lacks clarity in this regard, and the Governor is asking us to determine what this term will define. It’s a decision that will have considerable impact on educational funding issues, and I anticipate it will be one of the most challenging issues we face this session. The Legislature has done its best to provide schools with equitable funding in a down economy and most of us in the legislature believe the taxpayers of Kansas want their tax dollars heading to the classroom and not the courtroom. I look forward to participating in this conversation, and I’m confident we’ll find a reasonable solution.

Upcoming bills to watch:
House Bill 2035 - This bill aims to restrict late term abortion procedures, expand parental consent requirements for minors seeking abortions and strengthens the state’s partial birth abortion law to where it better aligns with tighter federal law. This particular measure is a combination of legislation passed during prior sessions that was vetoed by democratic governors Sebelius and Parkinson.

House Bill 2039 – Smoking Ban - Introduced on Wednesday, HB 2039 removes the gaming floor exemption found in the current statewide smoking ban. The current statewide smoking ban allows smoking on the gaming floor of racetrack and gaming facilities. HB 2039 has been referred to the House Health and Humans Services Committee for consideration.

A Voter Identification bill will be introduced soon that would require all voters to show photo identification before voting, require proof of citizenship when registering to vote, and extend the power to prosecute alleged cases of voter fraud to the Secretary of State’s office. Titled the SAFE Act (Safe and Fair Elections Act), the measure has over 35 co-sponsors in the House and is expected to be passed and signed into law by Governor Brownback. The measure would require Kansans to show a birth certificate, passport or other proof of citizenship when registering to vote. At the polls, voters would have to show government issued photo ID before casting their ballot. The Act would require voters who request an advance or mail-in ballot to include with the ballot application their driver’s license number or a photocopy of their ID. Opponents argue the measure is a modern day poll tax that disenfranchises the disabled, poor and elderly. In response, current provisions in the bill allow low-income Kansans to get a free ID or birth certificate if they reside in a household with an annual income of 150 percent of the federal poverty level (approximately $33,000 for a family of four). For residents over the age of 65, an expired driver’s license or photo ID can be used in lieu of a current form of photo ID.

My three committees, Ag & Natural Resourses, Federal & State Affairs and Social Service Budgets have met only a few times this past week with updates from various state agencies. I expect to listen to hearings on upcoming bills which were introduced last week in each committee. I announced House bill 2003 in Transportation Tuesday which will rename a portion of #18 Highway in Lincoln and Ottawa Counties after our local WW II Medal of Honor recipient Donald K. Ross. The hearing may be held late this next week or early the following week with people from home driving in to testify as conferees. The bill was pre-filed in November and should breeze through the legislative process in both Chambers. My wish is to have a “clean bill” – the bill as I introduced it with no amendments attached to it so it only honors our hero from District #107.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather has been a bit of a problem for visitors from home to get to Topeka however it was my pleasure to meet the Dickinson County Commissioners and county staff at County Government Day and also with Judge Guy Steier from Clyde at the Magistrate Judge Association yearly reception - both held on Tuesday before the nearly 8 inches of snow arrived.
I have some open page dates identified so that if some of my younger constituents above the age of 10 want to come to Topeka and serve as a page for a day they may pick from the following: Tuesday, February 8thand Tuesday, March 22nd. If other days work into your schedule, please let me know as I can request other days as well. Call my office and my office assistant Pat can help you at 1-785-296-7642.
As always, I hope you are tracking the legislature’s work in Topeka and, if possible, take the time to visit this session. If you would like an individual meeting, I’d be happy to arrange one. In the meantime, I’m always anxious to hear your thoughts on how the issues discussed in Topeka affect you. Reliable feedback is very important in making sure I’m accurately representing my friends and neighbors here in the district. Please feel free to call or email elaine.bowers@house.ks.gov and I’d be happy to discuss any topic you are interested in. Thank you for the honor of serving you.

Rep. Elaine Bowers
Kansas State Capitol Building
300 SW 10th St.
Room 54S
Topeka, KS 66612