Capitol Comments – March 20, 2017
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Legislators continued committee work on bills, and Senators spent Wednesday and Thursday of last week debating bills on the floor. Chief Justice Lawton Nuss delivered the State of the Judiciary address Wednesday to a joint session in the House chamber for the first time in years.
The Senate also passed a rescission bill to address the nearly $300 million budget gap in the current fiscal year’s budget. The bill now goes to a conference committee where three members of the House and Senate budget committees will begin negotiations of the changes made by each chamber.
The focus this week now shifts to developing sound fiscal policies for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. It is anticipated the “mega” budget bill will be considered by the Senate later this week.
At the end of March, we hit the deadline for non-exempt bills to be out of their second chamber. As such, there should be an influx of work on the Senate floor. With little time left in the session, I encourage you to contact me with any concerns or questions you may have about bills or committee hearings.
It is truly an honor to serve you. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at 785-296-3245 or by email at Anthony.Hensley@senate.ks.gov. Or, stop by my legislative office located in room 318-E of the Statehouse. I also encourage you to follow me on Facebook.com/SenatorAnthonyHensley.
Senate Democratic Leader
In this issue:
After more than an hour of debate and several failed attempts to amend the bill with disastrous budget cuts, the Senate passed a rescission bill on a vote of 27-13. I voted for it.
It is the first step in putting our state back on a more stable path. It addresses the shortfall for 2017 without making cuts to education or other critical state services. It also allows the Legislature to move on to the 2018 and 2019 budget.
To address that nearly $300 million budget gap, the bill:
- Delays $150 million in KPERS payments to be paid back within 20 years;
- Takes $163 million from a long-term investment fund;
- Delays the school payment from June to July; and,
- Requires the Kansas Department of Aging and Disabilities to utilize $2 million of existing funds to open 20 beds at Osawatomie State Hospital or a third party provider by June 30, as amended by voice vote.
It was not my preference to further delay the KPERS, but doing so prevented deeper cuts to K-12 budgets and other state services. It is now critical to work in a bipartisan manner to implement sound fiscal policies to ensure a better future for Kansas.
Senate Select Committee on Education Finance
In response to the school finance ruling, Senate President Susan Wagle appointed the Senate Select Committee on Education Finance. The Committee met for the first time last week. I am the ranking Democrat on the committee.
I provided a letter to committee members outlining items worth consideration when creating a school finance formula. These were the same items I included in my initial recommendation for the interim school finance study committee I proposed two years ago: school finance formula history, formulas used by other states, and factors of our past formula, such as enrollment, transportation, wealth as related to a district’s tax base, and so on.
However, it seems the plan is to just wait for the House Committee on K-12 Budget to send over a plan. They have been working since the start of session, and likely will send a plan to the House floor in the coming weeks.
Restoring prevailing wage
Senators rejected a floor amendment last week offered by Senator Pat Pettey (D-Kansas City) to restore prevailing wage on public projects in Wyandotte County. Prevailing wage ensures contractors are paying fair, competitive wages to workers.
The amendment was in response to a bill passed in 2013 that banned local governments from requiring contractors to pay prevailing wage. Studies have shown prevailing wage leads to local job growth with more work completed by in-state contractors without profit loss or increased construction costs.
At a time when Kansas workers are paying more in taxes, their wages lag behind the rest of the nation, and job growth is non-existent, prevailing wage is needed. I supported the amendment, but it ultimately failed 13-27. Democrats, however, remain committed to providing more opportunities, better wages, and safer working conditions for working Kansans.
State of the Judiciary
For the first time in years, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss delivered his State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of legislators in the House chamber. In his speech, Nuss focused heavily on the low wages earned by employees of the Kansas judicial system, and the high turnover rates as a result.
Aside from a 2014 cost of living adjustment, no changes have been made to judiciary wages in nearly a decade. Nuss said that all jobs within the judicial system pay below the market rate and nearly one-third of their employees must hold an additional job to make ends meet.
Low compensation is causing many employees to search elsewhere for higher paying jobs and, as a result, is the second leading cause for turnover, the first being retirement. Nuss requested $22 million from the state legislature to dedicate to increasing wages to market rate.
Given that most state employees have not been given pay increases in more than a decade, I continue to support efforts that results in pay increases for all state employees.
Last week marked what is known as Sunshine Week, an initiative to celebrate open records and open government. Democrats have always believed that good government and transparency are the very foundation of our democracy.
On Thursday, Senators approved a bill to make local government meetings more open to the public. Senate Bill 70, introduced in part by Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence), modifies requirements to justifications for closed meetings or executive sessions in an effort to make the meetings more transparent. The bill passed 39-1.
I offered an amendment to this bill requiring all legislative caucus meetings be open to the public and the media. Senate Republicans are notorious for holding closed caucus meetings. The amendment failed, however, on a vote of 9-28.
During a budget debate last week, Senate President Susan Wagle offered an amendment that would cut K-12 budgets by $68 million. She argued students would not be impacted because school boards would have to cut “non-classroom” expenses. This is not true.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s most recent school finance ruling makes it clear that all cuts to schools reduce student achievement, especially when they eliminate teachers and support staff.
Cuts to K-12 budgets have eliminated more than 1,000 teaching positions along with nearly 1,000 support staff positions including school nurses, social workers, librarians, school counselors, speech therapists, and others. Additionally, the cuts led to discontinuation of many extracurricular activities because the districts could no longer afford to hire coaches. For the same reason, programs such as one-on-one tutoring were removed.
Quality teachers, support staff, and extracurricular activities directly impact student achievement, the Court concludes. They cite testimony of expert witness Dr. Eric Hanushek who said, “The most important factor in influencing student achievement is the quality of the teacher.” Without enough teachers, class sizes grew, and the larger class sizes prevented teachers from being able to spend more time with each student.
The Court notes the impact of class size on achievement when they write, “Smaller class sizes…are an effective tool for increasing student achievement.” Further, they indicate that without quality teachers and necessary support staff, school districts struggle to meet achievement goals outlined by the Rose standards.
But, the Court also notes that pay cuts and stagnant salaries make it difficult to recruit and retain quality teachers. This means it is critical for school districts to not only receive enough funding to create additional teaching positions, but to also increase salaries to attract new teachers to their districts.
The Court’s opinion is encouraging, and the defeat of Sen. Wagle’s amendment means Legislators understand what it’s going to take to ensure all Kansas children have access to a quality education.