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.
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.
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.