2011 Session: Week 7 and 8

Last week, the Legislature reached the halfway point of the 2011 session. As a result we did not meet on Monday or Tuesday to give clerical staff time to process the many pieces of legislation passed last week. The second half of the session will go quickly as our next hard deadline is April 2. That will be the end of Regular Session and will only leave Veto Session to complete this year’s legislative business. Over the next few weeks, expect a majority of our time to be spent on addressing the budget and considering legislation passed by the Senate which is now in the House. During the first week after “turnaround” there is always a slowdown in the number of bills debated by either body. Now both houses will begin to consider the bills sent over by the other chamber. Of the 83 bills that have passed the Senate, I counted around 60 which have been scheduled by House Committees for hearings. To view both the House and Senate calendars for upcoming hearings, go online to www.kslegislature.org. Below are some of the Senate bills which have hearings coming up in the House.

Harassment by a Telecommunications Device (SB 55)
SB 55 adds to the crime of harassment by a telecommunications device using a telecommunications device to transmit an obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent image or text. The bill also makes it illegal to use a telecommunications device to transmit any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or text with the intent to abuse, threaten or harass the person on the receiving end. Law enforcement testified current law makes it difficult to charge individuals who send harassing or threatening text messages and encouraged the bill include the full range of telecommunication devices now available.

Employment Security Law (SB 77)
SB 77 revises certain provisions of the state employment security law regarding loan interest payments, the taxable wage base and extending tax rate caps on certain employers. The bill creates the Employment Security Interest Assessment Fund to pay interest and principal owed to the U.S. Department of Labor for unemployment compensation advances. Over a period of three years, the bill increases the taxable wage base. For the 2011 the taxable wage base remains $8,000 but the base increases to $9,000 in 2012 and $10,000 in 2013. Beginning in 2014 and for all years thereafter the base is set at $11,000. The measure increases the number of rate groups for negative balance employers and increases the surcharge rate applied to those employers. Under current law, a person may receive unemployment compensation if they left their job to follow their spouse to another location for employment, known as the “trailing spouse” provision. The bill amends that law to allow spouses to collect unemployment only if they are the spouse of personnel in the U.S. armed forces or military reserves. At the beginning of 2009, the Employment Security Trust Fund had a balance of $566.5 million. However, the recession caused the state to pay out $766.8 million in unemployment benefits during 2009. By January 9, 2010, the balance of the trust fund had shrunk to $65.2 million and the state had to borrow money from the federal government to ensure the unemployed in Kansas continued to receive their unemployment. As of January 31, 2011 the balance of that loan is $100.8 million and it is estimated the state will have to pay $6 to $9 million in interest this year to the federal government.

Rural Opportunity Zones (SB 198)
SB 198 designates 50 Kansas counties as Rural Opportunity Zones and provides an income tax exemption for certain out-of-state taxpayers who relocate to those counties. The bill authorizes those counties to participate in a state-matching program to repay student loans of up to $15,000 for certain students who establish residences in the respective county.
Counties receiving the Rural Opportunity Zone designation are: Barber, Chautauqua, Cheyenne, Clark, Cloud, Comanche, Decatur, Edwards, Elk, Gove, Graham, Greely, Greenwood, Hamilton, Harper, Hodgeman, Jewell, Kearny, Kingman, Kiowa, Lane, Lincoln, Logan, Marion, Mitchell, Morton, Ness, Norton, Osborne, Pawnee, Phillips, Pratt, Rawlins, Republic, Rooks, Rush, Russell, Scott, Sheridan, Sherman, Smith, Stafford, Stanton, Trego, Thomas, Wallace, Washington, Wichita, Wilson and Woodson.

Qualifications for Food Sales Tax Rebate (SB 193)
SB 193 would require a valid social security number be given to qualify for the state food sales tax rebate. The fiscal note reveals that the Department of Revenue has been accepting about 9000 plus rebate forms without a SSN. This proposed legislation is a no-brainer. The bill will save 2.4 million dollars that is needed to help make ends meet. This is another example of finding wasteful spending in the budget. SB 193 just passed the Senate and will need to be scheduled for hearings in House Taxation.

House bills sent to the Senate:
Paycheck Protection – By passing HB 2130, also known as “paycheck protection,” on a 76 to 45 vote, the House voted to ensure that funds deducted directly from union members’ paychecks are not used for political contributions with which they may not agree. While this is a tremendous step toward increasing personal freedom, it also reduces the cost of labor in the state, making Kansas a competitive location for businesses which in turn results in more KS jobs.
Kansas Health Care Freedom Amendment – Currently, one of the most harmful threats to economic growth is the uncertainty created by the federal health care insurance reform. Without being able to plan on their regulatory expenses, employers are waiting to hire. On a 91 to 27 vote, the House passed the Kansas Health Care Freedom Amendment and took a step toward ending this uncertainty for Kansas employers and citizens. With a stable economic climate, Kansas businesses can focus on growing their operations and creating jobs.
Full-Time Employee (FTE) Reduction – By passing HB 2014 on an 81 to 40 vote, the House eliminated 2,000 open FTE positions ensuring that state agencies do not receive funding for employees who are not working. This will ensure that agencies are not able to inflate their budgets with unfilled positions. Statewide salaries and wages in FY 2012 will account for $2.6 billion of all funds. The SGF portion is $1.1 billion or nearly 20 percent of the SGF budget. Governor Brownback has recommended 39,141 FTE positions and 1,545 non-fulltime equivalent unclassified position in FY 2012. An agency may or may not have a position limitation imposed on it by the Legislature. Regents, the Judicial Branch, and the Legislative Branch are examples of agencies that do not have a position limitation imposed upon them. The average Kansas classified employee (Classified state employees are in the Executive Branch of State Government and have Civil Service Protection) is 47 years old; has 14 years of service with a $38,049 annual salary. The Average unclassified employee (Unclassified employees do not have Civil Service protection and generally serve at the pleasure of their appointing authority) is 47 years old; has 12 years of service with a $61,830 annual salary. The total budgeted health insurance premium for each state employee with dependents that the state pays is $9,518. State employees receive ten paid holidays, including a discretionary day.

Good and Bad news:
Last week the state had received some good economic news about the Boeing contract and the projected 7,500 jobs for Kansas. However, this week we received a negative tax revenue report which will affect our budget. February revenues totaled $224 which fell $11.5 million below the projected estimates of $235.5 million. Sales taxes were up $3.5 million with $143.5 million collected. Individual income tax receipts from February were $37.3 million, $12 million below the $50 million projection. However, the state deducts tax refunds from monthly income tax collections to produce the final figure for the month. Therefore the shortfall is most likely the result of paid tax returns. To date, revenues are $3.448 billion, $6.4 million below the estimate of $3.455 billion for the current fiscal year. The figures from February provide both positive and concerning news on the fiscal state of Kansas. We are seeing improvement in some areas of the Kansas economy but it is not enough. The Legislature must produce a responsible, balanced budget that reins in state spending and avoids accounting gimmicks by relying on real dollars and structural reform.

Committee work and Session
With the two shorten weeks, I had only a few committee meetings with the bulk of the work in the Social Service Budget Committee reviewing the SRS budget. Tentatively, it appears that a much less drastic cut to the mental health facilities and to Early Head Start may be realized when the Senate and the House members meet in the Conference committee to finalize the 2012 budget. As I have mentioned in the past, there are so many steps before the committee recommendations are made final – there will be much “tweaking” and many votes before the plans are made permanent. This is the case with KNI (Kansas Neurological Institute) in Topeka. The Kansas Closure Committee recommended to the previous Administration and also to Governor Brownback’s Administration the closing of the facility. Last year’s closure of the 66 bed Beloit Girls Juvenile Correctional Facility was also recommended by this commission. In both cases, studies were done by the Closure Committee and report is introduced as plan to the Governors staff and to a legislative committee (or sub-committee as in the SS Budget) which sends it on to a full committee then to the floor for a vote. This happens in both the House and the Senate and the original recommendation can be changed many times before the final votes.

On February 21st, I introduced two Medal of Honor Recipients, Colonel Don Ballard and Colonel Roger Donlan on the House floor on my Personal Point of Privilege moment. Immediately following, Rep. John Grange from El Dorado carried House Bill 2003 on General Orders. The bill renames a 47 mile stretch on Hwy 18 in Lincoln and Ottawa Counties as the Donald K. Ross Memorial Highway. The bill passed out with a unanioumous vote. It was then heard in Senate Transportation on Thursday and will be voted on this coming Tuesday by the Senate members. Captain Ross received his Medal of Honor Award for his heroic effort during Pearl Harbor and being credited for saving the battleship, USS Nevada, in the attack. The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action and awarded by the President. The Award was established by President Lincoln in 1863 and to date only 3,485 have been awarded with only 85 living recipients today. A dedication ceremony will be held in late spring with an unveiling of Kansas Department of Transportation signs memorializing our local hero Captain Donald K. Ross. 4-Hers from home also visited the Capitol that Monday and watched session as this bill was presented to the entire House Committee as a Whole – I had a chance to visit with them as well as other area legislators. It was my pleasure to have Katelyn Reiff and Natalie Harris page for me on February 21st as well. Thursday, March 3rd was Mental Health Day in Topeka and I was happy to welcome Pawnee Mental Health Staff and residents from Concordia to spend some time with me. The Concordia 7th and 8th graders visited Topeka and the Statehouse on Thursday as well. My classmate from Delphos, Lyle Davidson, was in Topeka last week for the annual Kansas Association of Insurance Agents meeting and legislative reception. I always take advantage of every opportunity to work with students and this year had the privilege of hosting 3 gifted students on Legislative Shadow Day, February 16. They were Austin Harris of Basehor, Eric Pahls of Beloit and Russell Budden of St. Marys.

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 at 785-296-7642 or email me at elaine.bowers@house.ks.gov and I’d be happy to discuss any topic you are interested in. Don’t forget that you can also follow the legislative session online at www.kslegislature.org, including live broadcasts of the House and Senate while on the floor. Thank you for the honor of serving you.

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