Posts tagged with Kansas Politics

Brownback pushes agenda on taxes, schools, health care and state retirement for 2012

One year ago, when then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, was asked if he had apprehensions about turning over the office to Republican Sam Brownback, Parkinson said no.

Despite having witnessed the election of the most conservative governor in modern Kansas history and a tidal wave of conservatives in the House, Parkinson said he thought the Kansas public would somehow moderate their government.

“I think that in the area of social policy, the most prominent topic, of course, is abortion … in the area of social policy, I think it will be fairly easy for him (Brownback) to make changes and get legislation through that he would like and satisfy some of those constituencies,” Parkinson said.

But, he added, “When it comes to the area of budget and revenue, budget and taxes, it will be a lot harder. Those are issues that create all sorts of divides that are not necessarily Republican and Democrat. They can be more urban and rural. They can have a lot to do with your particular school district.

“So, if his constituency will be satisfied with a social agenda, I think he can make them happy. If his constituency is requiring an overhaul of the budget, a complete revamping of the tax system, a rewriting of the school finance formula, he’s going to have a lot of headaches. That’s a lot harder to do.”

Parkinson correctly predicted the outcome of the 2011 legislative session. Brownback, indeed, signed into law several bills restricting abortion, all of which were approved in the Republican-dominated Legislature and are in various stages of legal challenges. He signed into law voter-photo ID that has been pushed by Republicans across the nation. In a philosophical battle, that has continued to confound many, Brownback also made Kansas the first and only state to stop funding the arts.

For the 2012 legislative session, Brownback is wading into what Parkinson called the “lot harder to do” issues.

‘Significant’ session predicted

Brownback has said the session, which starts Jan. 9, will be one of “the most significant” in decades.

He plans to try to revamp the tax code, which will include lowering the state personal income tax.

He has released an overhaul of the school finance system that removes state limits on local school districts to raise property taxes for schools as high as they want.

He plans to turn over management of the entire Medicaid system to private managed care companies.

And he has pushed for and supports a study commission’s recommendation to replace the traditional defined benefit public employee pension with a 401(k)-style savings plan.

He also plans to stir the complex world of water law.

And there’s more.

Brownback will push his agenda during the politically-charged process of redrawing political boundaries during redistricting.

Once the session ends, all legislative positions will be before the voters, which, at least according to one recent survey, have expressed mixed feelings about what they want from the state.

The Kansas Speaks statewide survey done by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University showed 65 percent of Kansans want to increase school funding, and 59 percent want to increase funding for social services. But 52 percent want to cut overall state spending.

Lowering tax rates

Brownback argues that Kansas is falling behind the region and nation in economic growth. He says lower taxes will lure more business to the state, and he has used the growth of Texas, which doesn’t have a state income tax, as an example to follow.

Brownback’s administration has refused to reveal information on who it is talking to as it forms a plan to reduce personal income taxes.

The administration has hired Arthur Laffer, one of the architects of President Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics, for $75,000 to provide consulting on the initiative. A recent Washington Post story on what Brownback was doing in Kansas, quoted Laffer as saying, “It’s a revolution in a cornfield. Brownback and his whole group there, it’s an amazing thing they’re doing. Truly revolutionary.”

But Brownback’s plan to overhaul the state tax system has appeared to have gotten some push back. Lowering the personal income tax would remove dollars to a state budget that was whacked repeatedly during the Great Recession. As the state’s economy improves, some have argued the top priority should be restoring budget cuts, not cutting taxes.

Brownback’s tax plan was expected to be released in November, but has been put off until his State of the State speech on Jan. 11.

And Republican leaders in the Senate have taken a different approach to the issue.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, has formed a bipartisan tax study group, which includes legislators and private citizens who will consider a number of proposals, including Brownback’s.

“It will be very helpful to receive comment and consideration from a group of private citizens who come from different and diverse parts of the state,” Morris said.

“These people know what works and what does not work in their individual businesses and communities, and they have first-hand knowledge of what helps or hinders economic growth in their areas,” he said.

School finance fight expected

Consuming about half of the state budget, school funding is one of the most hotly debated issues before Kansas policymakers.

Citing frequent litigation over school finance, Brownback has said he wants to overhaul the formula used to divide up nearly $3 billion and put the Legislature — not the judiciary — in charge of school funding.

His plan would eliminate state limits on local school districts raising property taxes for education. It would provide a small increase to some of the smallest school districts in Kansas, but nearly all mid-sized and large districts would see no increase.

Advocates of school funding say Brownback’s so-called “hold harmless” provision would lock in funding levels that have been cut to the bone. The current level of base state aid per pupil is at its lowest point in a decade.

“To the extent that the Brownback plan permanently enshrines the cuts to education funding of the last few years, it is a plan that is inadequate for a state that hopes to capitalize on a recovering economy and develop a workforce ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” the Kansas-NEA said.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said public school education has a special place in the hearts of Kansans. “It’s almost like a legacy. It’s what we think we should be all about,” she said.

Health care privatization

The Brownback administration is seeking contract bids to managed care companies

Like many states, Kansas is trying to reduce the growing costs in the program that is funded through federal and state dollars and provides health care coverage to 350,000 Kansas residents.

But unlike most states that have gone the managed care route, Kansas wants to include in its contracts care for those with developmental disabilities.

Advocates for Kansans with developmental disabilities say the required long-term care needs don’t fit well with managed care.

KPERS overhaul pushed

Brownback also is pushing for a change in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.

A plan pushed by Brownback and other Republicans would eliminate the pension plan for future hires and some current employees and replace it with a 401(k)-style savings plan.

Democrats say the proposal does nothing to fix long-term funding issues within KPERS and will leave future retirees with little.

By Scott Rothschild


Governor’s plan for managed care raising concerns

Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to have managed care companies provide services for those with developmental disabilities is raising concerns.

Gene Kean, a Lawrence resident whose sister is cared for at Lakemary Center, said he believes the quality of her care would be sacrificed by the proposed changes.

“If the state gets away with this, it appears some very important functions of local care decision-making would be taken away from those who have the daily intimate knowledge of what is best for their clients,” Kean said.

Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer want to overhaul Medicaid, which is the state and federally funded health program for those with disabilities, the elderly and low-income residents.

It’s one of the largest expenses in state government, accounting for nearly $2.8 billion in spending. About 350,000 Kansas residents are covered by Medicaid.

Brownback wants to contract with private managed care companies to handle the program and call it KanCare.

The Brownback administration has promised that KanCare “will improve coordination of care and services to achieve better outcomes and long-term savings without reducing benefits or eligibility, while safeguarding reimbursements for providers.”

The administration says that the proposal will reduce growth in Kansas Medicaid spending by 8 percent to 10 percent.

But organizations that care for those with severe disabilities say that managed care companies aren’t familiar with the long-term needs of their clients, some of whom require round-the-clock attention.

Under the proposal, those with developmental disabilities may be forced to change the support staff that they have depended on for years, they say. Most states that have gone the managed care route for Medicaid have excluded the developmentally disabled from those changes.

Bill Craig, president and chief executive officer of Lakemary Center, said, “We have severe doubts that it is workable.” Lakemary Center serves more than 500 adults and children in northeast Kansas.

Craig says he has no problem turning to managed care for health care expenses, but he said the long-term supports needed by those with developmental disabilities should be “carved out” of Brownback’s plan. People are starting to make their wishes known in this area. Last week, a meeting on the issue in Lenexa drew about 300 people.

Craig said his position had nothing to do with “preserving our organizations.” He said, “Many of us are parents. My 32-year-old son, with severe disabilities, I want to know that after I’m gone that he will not be downgraded to lower quality services than he already has.”

Kean said he thought that over the years Kansas had been a model in providing services for those with disabilities. “Why do we have to go backwards?” he said.

By Scott Rothschild


Kobach: Kansas ID law not being reviewed

The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing new voter-photo ID laws in some states, but apparently Kansas is not one of them.

“We have not been contacted at all by the Justice Department in this respect,” said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

And Kobach, a Republican who pushed for the Kansas voter ID law, said he doesn’t expect the federal government to look at the Kansas measure.

Kansas was among a number of states this year that approved laws requiring voters to show a photo ID to vote. The new requirement will be in effect for the 2012 election.

The Justice Department is looking over new laws in South Carolina and Texas. The agency has not said what other states’ laws are being analyzed.

In a speech last week in Austin, Texas, at the presidential library of Lyndon Johnson, who signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to enforce civil rights at the ballot box.

Under the Voting Rights Act, the federal government may block states from putting into effect laws that it deems may deter minorities from voting. Several voting rights groups allege the ID laws will suppress elderly, student and minority voters.

Kobach disagrees, saying the ID laws are needed to prevent voter fraud.

Kansas may escape Justice Department review because it is not a “pre-clearance” state, Kobach said. Under the Voting Rights Act, most of the southern states are “pre-clearance” states, which means any changes proposed in election laws in those states have to be given the OK by the Justice Department.

Even so, Kobach said he didn’t think the Justice Department could justify stopping the laws because the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 upheld an Indiana law that required a photo ID of voters.

By Scott Rothschild


Kansas Regents OK 2.5 percent in residence hall rates at KU

Kansas University students will pay more for room and board under an increase in student housing and food service that was approved Wednesday by the Kansas Board of Regents.

The room-and-board proposal would increase the yearly rate by $178, from $7,080 to $7,258, which equals 2.5 percent. That increase is for a typical double-occupancy room-and-board contract, and will take effect July 1.

All six state universities were granted increases by the regents.

The increases will range from 1.7 percent at Wichita State to 4 percent at Pittsburg State. Kansas State’s is 3.5 percent; Emporia State, 2.6 percent; and Fort Hays State, 2.4 percent.

Even with the increases, the cost of room and board at the Kansas schools would remain below the $8,194 average for public universities in the Midwest, according to a regents memo.

About 4,800 students live in KU student housing.

By Scott Rothschild


Brownback says he will push for reducing state personal income tax rate

Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday said he will push to reduce the state personal income tax rate and overhaul the school finance system.

Speaking to reporters and editors at the Lawrence Journal-World, Brownback said growing the state economy is his primary goal as he prepares for his second legislative session as governor. The 2012 session starts Jan. 9.

The state needed to be ready for a “federal storm” of budget cuts from Washington, said Brownback, a former U.S. Senator. Whoever the next president is, he said, “is going to cut.”

Brownback, a Republican, said he wants to lower the state’s individual income tax rate to make it the second lowest in the region, behind Colorado. Kansas now has the second highest personal income tax rate in relation to neighboring states.

He predicted the lowered tax rates would spur economic growth, which then should be plowed back into more tax cuts. At this point, he said, he would not propose lowering the state corporate income tax.

Brownback also reiterated his desire to revamp the school finance formula, saying the current funding system was under constant legal challenge. General concepts of his plan include allowing more local property tax funding of schools, which has raised concerns about increasing the disparity between rich and poor districts.

But he backed off a key part of his proposal, saying he will not recommend allowing counties to raise sales taxes for schools. He said there had been a lot of opposition to that idea. Details of his school funding method are scheduled to be released today. (Wed)

On other issues, Brownback:

• Said the budget proposal he will send to legislators will recommend resumption of state funding of the Lawrence office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

The city and county picked up the lease costs of the local SRS office after Brownback and SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. proposed closing nine offices, including the one in Lawrence.

That closure proposal prompted a public outcry from local officials who said closing the Lawrence office would have created havoc in the community and disrupted services to thousands of needy people.

Later, Siedlecki agreed to a plan for city of Lawrence and Douglas County taxpayers to pay the rent for the SRS building, and he would pursue legislative approval to fund the office in future years.

Asked if he would have done anything differently during the controversy, Brownback said he probably should have asked for advice from former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. Brownback said Sebelius closed numerous SRS offices without any controversy.

• Called for construction of the controversial, $150 million South Lawrence Trafficway. “This one has got to get done. It is going to get done,” he said.

• Said he planned to revisit his veto of state funding of the Kansas Arts Commission but refused to elaborate. Brownback’s veto of funds made Kansas the only state to not fund the arts and cost Kansas $1.2 million in federal matching dollars.

• Voiced support for a study commission’s recommendation to replace the state’s traditional pension plan for a 401(k)-like plan for new public employees hired after July 1, 2013.

• ­­Continued his support of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican nomination for president. “He has a great track record,” Brownback said. He said Republican voters have become more conservative and they are “anxious to scared” about the future of the country.

By Scott Rothschild


Brownback administration seeks input on proposed tax changes

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration is seeking input on its proposal to reform the state’s tax code.

Kansas Department of Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan Thursday will host public meetings in Ottawa, Emporia and Independence to get people’s opinions on taxes.

“I’m looking forward to hearing people’s comments from the southeast part of our state,” Jordan said.

The meetings will be held at the Ottawa Country Club from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.; the Emporia Area Chamber and Visitors Bureau, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; and Memorial Hall, Veteran’s Room in Independence from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Brownback said he wants to reduce the state income tax as a way to improve the Kansas economic climate.

Brownback’s office reports the governor will probably unveil his proposed tax plan during his State of the State address to the Legislature on Jan. 11.

By Scott Rothschild


Chancellor Gray-Little prepares to share KU’s vision for improvement with Kansas Regents

At a time of fiscal constraints, Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little is hoping to get state leaders to sign onto the school’s vision for improvement.

The goals outlined in KU’s “Bold Aspirations” plan, which was unveiled earlier this year, will also lift the state as a whole, Gray-Little maintains.

“It is very much a push to make an outstanding University of Kansas that also benefits the state,” Gray-Little said Monday in an interview with the Journal-World.

Gray-Little will present KU’s strategic plan and goals on Wednesday to the Kansas Board of Regents.

The goal is to make KU a top-tier research university, delivering the kind of research that improves the health of Kansans, creates new sources of energy and other discoveries, and meets the state’s workforce needs.

Gray-Little said she would like KU to be in the middle of the pack of peer research institutions, such as Iowa University, North Carolina University and Colorado University.

She also wants to maintain the school’s membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Accomplishing those goals will require more revenue at a time when the availability of funds is being squeezed at the federal, state and household level.

“That is what keeps you awake at night,” she said.

In the legislative session that starts next month, KU will ask the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback for $3 million in new funding to hire highly sought-after research professors.

KU also is working on programs to increase graduation and retention rates. Also, she said KU is undergoing an active discussion on whether to increase student admission standards.

Brownback has called on all public universities in Kansas to improve their national academic rankings.

By Scott Rothschild


Sebelius under fire from allies for Plan B decision

Leaders of groups that push for reproductive health rights for women were stunned last week when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to make emergency contraception more easily available.

Groups frequently allied with Sebelius criticized the decision by the former Kansas governor to keep Plan B One-Step behind the counter at pharmacies and require that girls under 17 continue to need a prescription for the contraceptive.

Sebelius’ decision overruled a recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration that Plan B was “safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of childbearing potential.” Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B can prevent pregnancy by restricting ovulation or blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg.

But Sebelius said she was concerned that the FDA recommendation would have allowed girls as young as 11 to buy the contraceptive. She concluded “that the data provided as part of the actual use study and the label comprehension study are not sufficient to support making Plan B One-Step available to all girls 16 and younger, without talking to a health care professional.”

When asked, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue, saying he supported Sebelius’ decision.

“I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine. And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore, should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect,” Obama said.

The Guttmacher Institute, whose stated mission is to advance sexual and reproductive health rights, said Sebelius’ example of an 11-year-old girl was specious.

Fewer than 1 percent of 11-year-old girls have had sexual intercourse, but nearly half of girls have had sex by their 17th birthday, the group said. And the Institute noted that if Sebelius is concerned about young girls misunderstanding the labels, there are many over-the-counter medicines that young people can buy that can have fatal side effects.

“Emergency contraception is more effective the sooner it is used, so it is critical that women of all ages are able to get it quickly and easily, without having to jump through unnecessary hoops,” said Sharon Camp, president and chief executive officer of the Guttmacher Institute.

“Secretary Sebelius’ decision to ignore the scientific evidence and keep Plan B One-Step off the shelves of local grocery stores and pharmacies is a huge disappointment,” she said.

And in Kansas, the abortion rights group Trust Women also voiced its displeasure with Sebelius’ decision.

“For a Health and Human Services secretary to overturn a carefully thought out decision by the FDA is entirely unprecedented,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and director of Trust Women. “It’s highly unusual, and in this case, ill-advised. The FDA, through thorough examination, made sure the drug was safe to be issued to young women. It may be safer than aspirin, which we distribute in schools. This decision seems to have been a political one. As a Kansan and longtime supporter of Sebelius, I can’t help but be disappointed in her judgment.”

By Scott Rothschild


Commission recommends end to legislative pension perk

The traditional pension plan for future and some current public employees would be eliminated and replaced with a 401 (k)-style system under a recommendation finalized Thursday by a state commission.

Proponents of the plan called it a responsible fix to a long-term funding problem in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.

“We made a major step forward,” said Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence. He said no future generation of Kansans will find themselves in the “financial hole that we are in today.”

But opponents said the proposal placed retirement risks onto public employees and would produce financially strapped retirees. Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she was “stunned” by the plan. “This is a recipe for disaster,” she said.

The recommendation goes next to the full Legislature. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has repeatedly said he supports a system that looks like the one being offered by the KPERS study commission.

Under the recommendation, KPERS employees, such as teachers and government workers, hired after June 30, 2013, and those workers not vested in KPERS by that date, would be enrolled in a defined contribution plan in which they would be required to contribute 6 percent of their wages. The state would contribute 1 percent the first year and increase its contribution by one-half percent each year until it reaches a maximum of 5 percent in the ninth year of work.

Currently, pensions are financed through contributions from employees and employers, as well as investments made by the system. Employees who have retired receive a “defined benefit” based on how long they worked and how much they made on average in the final years of employment. For example, a typical worker earning $40,000 a year who worked for 20 years will receive an annual pension of $14,000.

KPERS has more than 250,000 working and retired members and handles investments of more than $13 billion.

But a devastating downturn in investments in 2008 during the recession, plus years of the state failing to contribute sufficient amounts, has left the system with a long-term funding gap between assets and promised benefits.

Sen. Kelly, however, argued that a bill approved during the last legislative session provided the needed revenue in future years to put the plan in actuarial balance.

Converting to private-sector style retirement plans may be good for higher-paid workers but will leave low- and middle-wage employees with little to retire on, she said.

She said the state of West Virginia tried a similar conversion and found many employees were retiring with about $35,000 in total benefits. “You know what that makes them? That makes them poor. Who takes care of the poor and the elderly? The state,” she said.

But King said the transition better reflected the modern work environment where people change jobs more frequently. They will be able to move their retirement accounts to other jobs, he said. He said he believed public employees will benefit more under the proposed plan.

On another matter, the commission was unanimous in recommending elimination of a golden pension perk that Kansas legislators enjoy.

Currently, legislators, for purposes of calculating their state retirement benefits, are able to annualize their part-time salaries and expenses. This drastically increases their pension.

Commission member Rebecca Proctor said it wasn’t right to “slash benefits” to regular state workers, but preserve the legislative perk. “It is not fair or equitable … that their (state employees’) benefit is not nearly as nice as what the legislators get.”

Proctor, an attorney who represents the Kansas Organization of State Employees, made a motion to treat legislators the same as all other state employees under the proposed new system. That motion was approved unanimously, which included the votes of legislators who serve on the study commission.

The vote on the legislators’ pensions would prohibit them from annualizing their salaries and using expenses as part of their salary. It would also put them in the same proposed defined contribution plan and apply to current and future legislators, and those receiving benefits now.

By Scott Rothschild


Brownback’s school funding plan will allow for more tax leeway

By Scott Rothschild

Gov. Sam Brownback’s point man on school finance said Wednesday that the governor’s proposal to overhaul school funding will not force local districts to raise taxes but will give them greater ability to do so.

“If you can operate under what you have right now, it will not necessitate it,” Brownback’s Policy Director Landon Fulmer said when asked if the proposal would push more tax increases onto local districts.

But Fulmer told the Legislative Educational Planning Committee that the proposal would allow counties and local districts more leeway in raising property and sales taxes for their schools.

He said there is “a strong philosophical belief” in the Brownback administration to give locals unlimited control in raising funds for public schools.

As the committee questioned various proposals under Brownback’s plan, Committee Chair Jean Kurtis Schodorf, R-Wichita, said legislators needed facts about how the proposal would affect each school district. “The devil’s in the dollars,” she said.

Fulmer said he should have that information next week when he makes his second presentation to the State Board of Education.

Brownback has made overhauling the school finance system a major priority, saying the current formula is under constant litigation. But some have raised concerns, saying that allowing more local taxing authority will increase inequities between rich and poor school districts and actually will prompt more litigation.

Fulmer also said that Brownback’s proposal would include a “hold harmless” provision, meaning that no school district would get less money in the proposed school finance formula than under the current one.

But under questioning from committee members, Fulmer said some school districts would get less money if the number of students dropped.

“Your saying hold harmless light,” said Sen. Ruth Teichman, R-Stafford.

Brownback has made record cuts to base state aid to schools, which currently stands at $3,780 per pupil, the lowest level since 2000.

Committee members approved a motion to recommend no further cuts from the $3,780 level, which several said would be Brownback’s recommendation for the next school year. But Brownback’s office said his recommendation on base state aid per pupil is still being finalized.