The House and Senate returned to Topeka for their Sine Die day and officially ended the 2019 Legislative Session just after 1:30 pm.
Usually this is a largely ceremonial day and many legislators don’t even show up, but this year there were a number of items of importance to be handled. Attendance was very high with only two Senators absent (Democrat Tom Hawk and Republican John Skubal) and eight Representatives (Democrats Stan Frownfelter, Broderick Henderson, Annie Kuether, Nancy Lusk, KC Ohaebosim, and Valdenia Winn and Republicans JR Claeys and Russ Jennings).
A non-controversial item to handle was HCR 5015, a resolution extending the state of emergency declaration made by Governor Kelly. Such a declaration by the Governor is limited to a relatively short timeline and given the severity of this year’s tornado season, the Legislature unanimously extended the declaration which allows Kansas to seek federal disaster assistance.
Court of Appeals
The Senate also held a confirmation vote on Governor Kelly’s appointment of Sarah Warner to the Court of Appeals. This action had been mired in political wrangling about just who got to make the appointment after Kelly’s original pick, Jeff Jack, was found to have written posts on social media highly critical of Donald Trump and in a tone that many found quite offensive. Jack withdrew his nomination. Kelly subsequently appointed Warner, the Senate Judiciary Committee met on Tuesday to vote on the nomination and the full Senate confirmed the nomination 37 to 1 with only Independent John Doll voting no.
Those so-called “activist judges”
On a motion from Senator Ty Masterson (R-Andover) and after a vote of 28 to 10, the Senate withdrew SCR 1610 from a committee to the full Senate. SCR 1610 is a constitutional amendment to end the merit selection process for Supreme Court justices and make them political appointees at the sole discretion of the Governor. Removing this from the committee process is designed to avoid transparency and avoid public discourse (more below) and instead ram the amendment through the Senate without pesky public input.
Masterson and his fellow conservatives hate merit selection because it has resulted in a Court that has found against the state in school finance litigation and on some abortion issues. In Masterson’s mind, a justice that disagrees with him is an “activist judge” while one who votes his way is a good judge. Ending the merit system would take Kansas to the system used at the federal level under which each appointment becomes a partisan political war.
Making this action even more controversial is the fact that the resolution was introduced on March 29 and referred to Committee on April 3 making it too late in the session to get a public hearing in Committee. If the resolution were to stay in Committee it would be available for a public hearing and debate in January 2020. Masterson’s action means that the public will not be given the chance to weigh in on the resolution in a hearing – it will simply be taken directly to the full Senate. So much for the democratic process!
Multi-national Corporate Tax Cuts
After Governor Kelly vetoed a bill cutting taxes of multi-national corporations and wealthy individuals by $500 million and the Legislature failed to override that veto, they tried again with HB 2033.
This time the tax cut for multi-national corporations and wealthy individuals was scaled back to $250 million in an effort to make it more palatable to moderate Republicans. Kelly vetoed the bill, calling for fiscal caution and urging the Legislature to allow the state to continue to recover from the Brownback tax disaster.
Since it was a House bill, they got to take the first crack at overriding the veto. It takes a supermajority in both chambers (84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate) to override a veto. The vote in the House was 78 to 39 to override meaning it failed to get the supermajority necessary and that the Governor’s veto was sustained. As a result the Senate did not need to take the issue up. Six Republicans joined 33 Democrats in voting to sustain the veto – Diana Dierks, Larry Hibbard, Bill Pannbacker, Tom Phillips, Mark Samsel, and Kent Thompson. Two Democrats – Tim Hodge and Jeff Pittman – voted to override the veto.
KNEA strongly supported the veto and applauds those 39 members who voted to sustain it, blocking the override.
Make no mistake despite the talking points you will hear from conservative Republicans, the vast majority of the tax cuts in this bill went to multi-national corporations who enjoy sheltered earnings overseas. Under the Trump tax bill, some of those earnings were “repatriated” with the United States- meaning the corporations would have to pay taxes. This bill was a demand of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-founded and financed “grassroots” operation. The bill also allowed Kansas individuals to itemize on state taxes even if they could not on their federal taxes. The wealthiest individuals did not lose itemization and this benefit would be for those at higher income levels but not quite Koch status. The vast majority of Kansans would get no benefit. HB 2033 would not benefit “working Kansans” despite what conservatives will tell you.
Line-Item budget vetoes
The Governor also made line item vetoes to several items in SB 25, the budget bill. These included some small items in the education department ($800,000 for CTE incentives, $270,000 for Teach for America), a mental health program (although the Governor allowed the same funding to come for other sources), and an additional $51 million payment to KPERS beyond the $115 million payment passed earlier and signed into law.
The Senate took up the vetoes first and voted 27 to 11 to override the veto. The next action was in the House where they voted 86 to 30 to override the veto. Since the supermajority was reached in each chamber, these vetoes were overridden and the funding remains in the budget.
The majority of the debate was over the mental health funding and the KPERS payment; almost nothing was said about the education department fund vetoes.
Wagle versus the Constitution
The Press has naturally been reporting on the actions of Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) who called for the removal of a number of protesters in the Senate gallery who were calling out the Senate for failing to take a vote on KanCare expansion.
Not only did Wagle demand the protesters be removed, she also closed the gallery so the public could not watch the Senate and threatened to rescind the press passes of any reporters who dared to cover the incident or the arrests of protestors.
Wagle issued a statement in which she said, “Legally protected peaceful protest is consistent with some of the best traditions of American dissent. But sadly, today’s events were far from peaceful. The demonstrations were pure obstructionism that stifled debate, placing a roadblock in front of democracy.”
There is one point which needs to be made and that is that the protest was over the expansion of KanCare/Medicaid on which Wagle herself is fully responsible for “obstructionism that stifled debate.” It was Wagle and her Majority Leader Jim Denning that made sure expansion would not be discussed in committees or debated on the floor. They used their positions to obstruct discussion and to prevent and stifle debate. That is why the protesters were there in the first place. If Wagle and Denning had allowed the legislative process to work – had they not practiced obstructionism and stifled debate – there would have been no protests.
Further, their threats against journalists are a clear violation of both the United States and Kansas Constitutions. Her actions – and those of her staff – have brought a condemnation from the Lathrop and Gage Law Firm representing the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle.
We would recommend you read the notice that was sent to Wagle by the newspapers regarding her actions. Click here for that letter.