January 26, 2015

The 2015 Legislative session got underway January 12th. This session could prove to be a challenging and complex one. I think the best way to describe the mood in the Capitol is to quote Charles Dickens's first line in his book, A Tell of Two Cities: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." First: the best of times...

Typical of most years, our first week back in Topeka for the start of the 2015 legislative session was spent making needed contacts, unpacking, organizing, and attending ceremonial activities. Visitors and dignitaries lined the rotunda as we prepared for the inaugural ceremonies. The halls of the Capitol were filled with the music of state high school bands and choirs. The Kansas National Guard and Highway Patrol stood by and a poet and prayer from a local minster filled the House Chamber with words of encouragement as the 86th Legislative session convened.

The rest of the week was off to a slow start as members settled in and committees held a few informational hearings. On Thursday, January 15th, the Governor presented the Legislature his two-year budget plan in his 2015 State of the State address. Confronted by a $600 million deficit this fall, the Governor laid out a plan to reform some of the state's major functions. And so begins the work on embarking on the "worst of times," or maybe better stated, uncertain times.

State statue grants the Governor authority to make targeted reductions or allotments when there is a significant shortfall in the state general fund (SGF). The allotment plan has already been introduced although the Legislature is primarily responsible for making the changes necessary to balance the budget for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The Governor's budget focused on three major budgetary cost drivers: K-12 school finance formula, Medicaid, and Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS). The goal is to limit government while still meeting the expectations that citizens require from their government.

 


EDUCATION

The Governor suggests to sunset the current school finance formula by July 1, 2015. The current formula has been in place since the early 1990s. The governor did not provide a new funding plan to legislators on Friday but rather suggested we take a look at a new approach for school financing. In short, he proposes to determine what each district receives, send that to schools in the form of a block grant, and then spend the next two years deciding how to approach the long-term solution in the form of a new funding formula.


MEDICAID

Two years ago, the Governor reorganized the state's Medicaid system because it was not adequately addressing the needs of Kansans while at the same time costing the state millions. He reformed the state's Medicaid system to an integrated care system, formally called KanCare. While the implementation of KanCare has led to slower growth in expenditures as compared to the projected baseline growth of the old fee-for-service system, additional changes are needed to absorb the cost of Medicaid. A mix of KanCare policy and contractual changes were proposed and implemented by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services (KDADS). These changes will achieve $50 million in savings to the SGF.

Additionally, the Governor is proposing an added $5 million in SGF expenditures and $10 million in all funding sources to reduce the waiting list for the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) for the Physically Disabled and Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled programs. The Governor is also seeking $7 million from SGF expenditures and $15.9 million from all funding sources to allocate to the under-served waiting list for the Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled program that was eliminated in 2014.


KPERS 

The solvency of KPERS has always been a critical issue for the state. Just a few years ago, Kansas had one of the least solvent plans in the country, ranking near the very bottom. Thanks to the cooperative efforts of the legislature and a bi-partisan initiative to improve these rankings, Kansas now falls in the middle of the pack, which represents a substantial improvement in such a short time. The Governor has now proposed working with us to examine the possibilities of further reform to the state's retirement system in an effort to improve these rankings while controlling cost in one of our largest drivers. In his budget recommendation, he reduced the payment to KPERS by over $40 million. This year, he proposed two policy changes: (1) issuing bonds, and (2) extending the current amortization period for payments to KPERS. A selected committee in the Senate will be studying the issue and will be making recommendations to both the House and Governor's office as we move forward.


STATE'S REVENUE  

The final notable moving piece of the Governor's budget is a change in tax policy. In 2012 and 2013, a pro-growth tax package was passed significantly reducing personal income tax rates. Realizing the reduced tax rate would be unsustainable, the Governor proposed halting future tax reductions. In addition, he is asking to create a rainy day fund as well as a tax reduction fund designed to buy down income rates as returns allow and the legislature sees fit.

Education, Medicaid, and KPERS are the three largest expenditures in the state budget; however, they are not the only details in the Governor's budget proposal. The Governor has recommended a four percent reduction to select state agencies and another $100 million transfer from the State Highway Fund for the FY 2015 and FY 2016 budgets. KDOT indicates this will not hinder any current or proposed projects. He has also suggested an increase on consumption taxes for cigarettes, tobacco products, and liquor enforcement.

As you can see, we have some heavy lifting to do this session. With the budget shortfall, major reforms and another look at tax policy, we will have to make hard decisions. In the end, we will have to sort through the details, get into specifics, and analyze the information that will allow us to agree on a sensible solution. I want to know what you think about the issues and topics that impact our district and the State. This is just the beginning of a long road for the Governor's budget proposal. We will indeed see changes in this plan. I appreciate your emails and consider them when making my decisions and casting my votes.


Other highlights:

  • I enjoyed visits from members of the local CO-OP at the Capitol for their Legislative Action Day last Wednesday. 
  • I was honored to join in pro-life Kansans at the Rally for Life March this past Thursday on the south steps of the Capitol. What a wonderful showing of support for the pro-life movement. I will support the Dismemberment Bill, which will limit this type of abortion, when introduced this year on the floor. 
  • I am pleased to be one of 26 co-sponsors of Senate Bill No. 45, an act concerning firearms and relating to the carrying of concealed firearms. 
  • I also sat in on the copper theft bill hearing where some of my constituents testified. Hopefully this will get out of committee this year and on to the floor for a vote. 
  • There was good attendance from my district at the Kansas Association of School Boards meeting here in Topeka Thursday evening--I value their input greatly.

This session is definitely shaping up to be a busy one where a lot of good work for the state and District 26 can be accomplished, pushing us always forward to "the best of times."

April 30, 2014

Senator Kerschen spoke at the annual Multiple Sclerosis Walk in Wichita on April 26th. It was his pleasure to share the good news of the Legislative passage and Governor signing of SB 265—The Disabled Access Tax credit, which includes residential home modification. Among the walkers were Senator Kerschen's daughter, Rachel, daughter-in-law, Emily, and granddaughters, Abigail and Jenevieve as well as sponsor team members. They walked not only for a world free of MS but also to support Senator Kerschen's daughter, Emily, who has MS.

Senator Kerschen spoke at the annual Multiple Sclerosis Walk in Wichita on April 26th. It was his pleasure to share the good news of the Legislative passage and Governor signing of SB 265—The Disabled Access Tax credit, which includes residential home modification. Among the walkers were Senator Kerschen's daughter, Rachel, daughter-in-law, Emily, and granddaughters, Abigail and Jenevieve as well as sponsor team members. They walked not only for a world free of MS but also to support Senator Kerschen's daughter, Emily, who has MS.


Senator Kerschen’s shows off his big catch at the Larry Magill Sportsman’s Challenge hosted by KAIA for the Kansas Legislative Sportsman Caucus at Milford Lake.

Senator Kerschen’s shows off his big catch at the Larry Magill Sportsman’s Challenge hosted by KAIA for the Kansas Legislative Sportsman Caucus at Milford Lake.

April 22, 2014

INSURANCE COVERAGE FOR AUTISM

The Senate passed legislation requiring any health insurance company providing coverage in Kansas to include coverage for autism spectrum disorder, specifically coverage for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. HB 2744 would establish the criteria for the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder as well as the licensure requirement for those who administer ABA therapy.

ABA therapy is a growing and effective treatment prescribed for children diagnosed with autism. If provided at an early age at an intensive level, it has shown to greatly reduce the effects of autism. This bill would allow for 1,300 hours per year of intensive ABA therapy to be provided for the first four years after diagnosis, up to age five. After the initial four years of intensive therapy, the bill provides for 520 hours per year, up to the age of 12.

ABA therapy has allowed children with autism to become more successful in the classroom and ultimately helps them to become active members of society. HB 2744 is fiscally responsible legislation because it would help to keep these children from being reliant upon state services for potentially their whole lives. The fact that 36 states currently require insurance coverage for autism is an indication of the success of the therapy in treating autism. Requiring insurance coverage for autism therapy would afford children with autism in Kansas the opportunity to one day have a successful career and be essential contributors to the state's economy. HB 2744 passed the Senate on a vote of 38-2. The governor has now signed this bill into law.  

I was glad to support this bill.


PROPERTY TAX REFORM

The Senate passed legislation clarifying the legislature's intent that machinery and equipment be exempt from property tax. The legislature enacted in 2006 a property tax exemption for certain commercial and industrial machinery and equipment. HB 2643 would codify in statute that machinery and equipment constitute a specific sub-class of personal property and a statement of intent that they are exempt from property tax. This bill would also put into statute the guidelines of the Property Valuation Division (PVD) regarding classifying personal property.

HB 2643 represents a broad solution to the ongoing difficulties associated with appraisal of business machinery and equipment. This bill would essentially set the default classification for the appraisal of machinery and equipment as personal property unless proven otherwise by the facts as applied by the three part PVD test. The clarifying language contained in this bill would help prevent Kansas business from paying exorbitant property taxes due to misclassification of their machinery and equipment.


CONCEALED CARRY LICENSES

SB 447 passed the Senate by a vote of 34-2. The bill creates new provisions regarding weapons, specifically to employees with Concealed Carry licenses. Employees would not have to disclose they possess this license to their employers. The bill also covers new posting requirements for municipal buildings that prohibit the open carrying of firearms. Ultimately, SB 447 produces uniform laws throughout Kansas for concealed carry permit holders. A citizen would no longer have to worry about varying weapons laws if they were crossing cities or county lines with firearms, knives, etc.


PRO-LIFE PROTECTION ACT

The Senate discussed SB 448, which covers some major provisions of the Pro-Life Protection Act. The first provision requires any organization providing an abortion must link to the Kansas Department of Health's "Women's Right to Know" website on their homepage. Previously, abortion clinics would make it impossible to find the link on their website. This provision will allow for individuals seeking information to read from the "Women's Right to Know" provided by the state health department. SB 448 would reduce this to one click.

The second provision involved is the definition of "medical emergency" that is currently in place. The definition was found to be confusing and misinterpreted. The language was clarified in 448 to ensure clarity. SB 448 was passed on a vote of 33-7.

I voted for this bill.  


SCHOOL FINANCE BILL

In the final week before first adjournment, we took up the debate on the school finance budget. Many grueling hours were spent to come up with a plan that could get 63 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate. Two of the biggest items were how much new money would be spent and how many policy additions would be offered. There were also several reductions to district budgets like transportation and weightings to help pay for the full funding of Capital Outlay and the district's LOB.

The House initially passed a bill with 91 votes that met the equalizing requirements and had no policy additions. The Senate then added policy requirements concerning property tax reductions and corporate income tax credits as well as common core language and finally tenure. I voted NO on the Senate plan as I felt it was irresponsible to add provisions that never were passed or even heard in any Senate committee or conference committee. The bill went to conference and some changes were made, but the House rejected that version, too. Conference committees again met, and HB 2506 emerged with some dollar changes and still contained corporate tax credits and teacher tenure. There were many questions on the teacher tenure part of the bill, which is one of the reasons I voted NO on this bill. HB 2506 did pass the Senate with 22 votes and the House with 63.


HAPPENINGS AROUND THE DISTRICT

This past week started off with a legislative breakfast near Colwich at the farm of Susan and Dennis Gruenbacher. Sedgwick County Farm Bureau hosted the event, which featured topics like precision farming, chemical use and practices, and GMO seeds. They also demonstrated farm equipment, soil stewardship, and the demand for food products and resource conservation for the next generations. Everyone enjoyed getting outdoors for the event. 

I also attended the awards presentation for Eisenhower Middle School and Apollo Elementary School in the Goddard school district. Both of these schools received the Governor's Achievement Award for being in the top 5% of schools in the state of Kansas. The students from both schools put on a program of singing, dancing, and celebrating their success. It was very entertaining and a compliment to the teachers, parents, and staff at both schools. In addition to these schools, Garden Plain High School was also once again awarded the Governor's Achievement Award. I am very pleased to have such outstanding schools in the district to represent.

On Thursday, I attended the Seismic Task Force conference at Newman University. It featured the Kansas Geological Survey, Kansas Corporation Commission, and Kansas Department of Health and Environment. They showed data and information on seismic activity with the intent to continue increased monitoring for Kansas.

March 11, 2014

GREETINGS FROM THE STATEHOUSE

Last week was shortened to allow clerical staff to catch-up with the amount of bills passed before the 'Turnaround' deadline. Although we had Monday and Tuesday off, there was still a lot of committee work and debate on the Senate floor as the next major deadline, First Adjournment, is April 4, 2014. 


RELIGIOUS LIBERTIES

Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an informational hearing on the issue of religious liberty, and more specifically HB 2203, a measure passed and signed into law last session protecting Kansas religious liberties. The hearing came after the more controversial HB 2453 was killed in the Senate as a result of major flaws with the drafting of the legislation; Senate Leadership decided it would not be beneficial to work the legislation this year.

In the hour and half hearing, committee members heard from a number of experts regarding HB 2203, who ensured it does, in fact, protect Kansans' individual religious liberties. In fact, some testified that our current laws are some of the strongest in the entire nation. Testimony was provided by Professor of Law, Helen Alvare of George Mason University; L. Martin Nussbaum, an attorney specializing in religious institutions; Professor Mark S. Scarberry, Perpperdine University School of Law; Robert Hingula, Kansas Employers for Liberty Coalition; Tom Witt, Executive Director for Equality Kansas; and Doug Bonney, Chief Counsel and Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

The need for House Bill 2453 did not come without reason. Religious liberty is a dearly held belief of every American. We have seen countries fight for their right to practice their religious beliefs, and our country has fought to protect that same freedom. We also believe in individual freedoms. When we draft legislation every word matters. HB 2453 was unfortunately crafted in a manner that would have opened up the state to a number of legal vulnerabilities and unintended consequences. Those realities, paired with the greater understanding of the protections contained within HB 2203 convinced Senate leaders that current laws adequately protect Kansans' individual right to religious liberty.


JUDICIAL BUDGET

Also on Thursday, the Senate considered Senate Substitute for HB 2338--the judicial budget reform. The bill adds $2 million in new dollars from the state general fund and $8 million in savings from restructuring and docket fees. The dollars would be used for non-judicial court staff and help modernize the judicial branch. S Sub for HB 2338 complied four judicial reform bills including: SB 313, SB 364, SB 365 and SB 377. These four bills continue to fix recommendations made by a panel comprised of individuals from the Legislature and the Judicial Branch, referred to as the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Specifically, SB 364 allows the chief judges of each of our 31 judicial districts, if they desired, to allocate the funds provided to their district by the Kansas Supreme Court. The Kansas Supreme Court will still control how much money each district receives. If chief judges do not want to make the budget decision for their district, they do not have to participate and the current system, which the Kansas Supreme Court controls all budget and personnel decision, will remain.

The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 23-12.


PROPERTY TAX TRANSPARENCY

The Senate considered HB 2047 which creates transparency for local communities when their governments approve annual budgets or appropriations which are funded by an increase to property taxes or for increases to property valuation. When the votes are cast by the local municipalities, they would then need to publish the increase in the newspaper or on a public website.

HB 2047 created a healthy debate regarding property taxes in our state, and there were three amendments offered during debate. All failed to make it on to the final bill, which passed on a vote of 39-0.


FEBRUARY STATE GENERAL FUND RECEIPTS

The Kansas Legislative Research Department reported total State General Fund receipts from July 2013 through February 2014 totaled $3.65 billion, about $128.3 million above estimates. Total receipts for the month of February were $329 million, or $97.6 million above estimates.

For tax revenue sources that exceeded the estimate by more than $1 million were individual income ($104 million), corporate income ($20.5 million), insurance premiums ($9.5 million), financial institutions ($1.4 million) and compensating use ($1.1 million). There was only one tax source that fell below the fiscal-ear-to-date estimate by more than $1 million, retail sales.

March 6, 2014

Sedgwick County Farm Bureau members, Mick Rausch, Kent Winter, Max Tjadan, and Bruce Seiler were in the capitol on Wednesday testifying in the Senator Judiciary Committee on SB 418, concerning regulated scrap metal.  They also lobbied with various legislators in support of Extension Districts.  Pictured here on the senate floor with Senator Kerschen from left to right: Kent Winter,  Max Tjadan, Mick Rausch, Senator Kerschen, Bruce Seiler.


Senator Kerschen visited with constituents Jennifer Celso, PT, DPT, WCS, and Adam Russell, student at WSU in the Department of Physical Therapy, today in his office on varies issues.

constituents_march6.jpg

February 28, 2014

GREETINGS!  As the 2014 session reaches the half-way point, I want to share a few legislative updates with you. 

In the Agriculture Committee, we are working on a pet animal bill that deals with licensing and fees. It also prohibits euthanizing pets by carbon monoxide. This practice is not routinely used, but this bill prohibits it.

The Natural Resource Committee has held hearings on unmanned aviation devices (Drones). The bill attempts to protect private property and individual property rights. It is a very complicated bill as it deals with law enforcement and the application of this technology for a host of uses. Kansas State University is a leader in the technology of developing unmanned aircraft and the commercial application for this industry has great potential.

We continue working on a long term plan for the operation of the Boys Ranch at Lake Afton. The Secretary of Corrections has visited the Ranch and discussed with Sedgwick County staff and commissioners about efficiencies and the relationship with other juvenile programs around the state. We are doing a cost audit and outlining performance measures for all the facilities to determine levels of funding. Unfortunately, the commission seems to rely on a negotiating principle of "fund at our level or else we close the ranch." Furthermore, adding $190,000 for bonus payments when the county says they have no additional funds virtually doomed the funding proposal for the corrections budget on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Regardless of these unfortunate incidents, the Secretary is proceeding with an evaluation program to determine results and funding levels. To continue to request a million additional dollars for a facility does not sit well with other entities in the Juvenile program as well as be justifiable to taxpayers.

Finally, I am convinced that we can go forward with our business here despite the events connected with the Religious Freedom Act. I, along with a majority of my Senate colleagues, went to the Senate leadership and requested this bill not be advanced into the Senate.


TURNAROUND

Today marks the official halfway point of the 2014 session, which we refer to as turnaround. All bills, aside from some exempt bills, must be passed by their chamber of origin by turnaround in order to be considered on the back half of this year's legislative session. If a non-exempt bill is not passed by its chamber of origin prior to this day, then it cannot be considered.  


SENATE HAPPENINGS

Last week, 20 bills were passed on final action and sent to the House for further consideration after turnaround. The topics discussed this week covered a range of issues from allowing the Kansas State Fair to purchase event insurance for entertainment acts (SB 315), to extending the sunset of various fees currently charged by the Kansas Department of Agriculture (SB 286).


CELL NUMBERS PART OF DO NOT CALL REGISTRY

One notable piece of legislation will allow you to add your cellphone number to the National Do Not Call Registry. As technology is changing, consumers are seeing more and more calls from telemarketers to their personal cellphones. SB 308 will allow Kansans to add their cell number to the national list and also allow the Kansas Attorney General to enforce current law against telemarketers who call consumer's cell numbers listed on the registry. SB 308 passed the Senate 38-0 on Thursday.


PROTECTING ELDERLY & DEPENDENTS

The Senate also considered two bills this week, SB 354 and SB 355, which strengthen current laws for the financial mistreatment of an elder adult or dependent. Primarily, SB 354 gives prosecutors additional tools to indict anyone who takes advantage of a senior. Adult Protective Services, APS, identified that one in nine seniors has reported being abused, neglected or exploited. If enacted into law, offenders convicted of monetary abuse of a person over the age of 60 could be prosecuted under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act.

SB 355, the sister bill to SB 354, strengthens Kansas' Power of Attorney law to include more protections for anyone that is not acting in the best interest of their dependent. The Power of Attorney, if abusing their power, could be terminated and face criminal prosecution under the proposed law. Both bills passed the Senate on a vote of 38-0.