Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lawmakers talk partisanship at session’s midpoint

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 3/4/2013

Proposed legislation that would turn city and school board elections into partisan races did not receive a vote of confidence from the three state lawmakers who represent Franklin County.

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, and state Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, talked Saturday about the proposed legislation, House Bill 2271, along with several other bills during a Legislative Coffee in the packed city commission chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.

Proposed legislation that would turn city and school board elections into partisan races did not receive a vote of confidence from the three state lawmakers who represent Franklin County.

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, and state Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, talked Saturday about the proposed legislation, House Bill 2271, along with several other bills during a Legislative Coffee in the packed city commission chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.

No elected city, county or school board officials that Finch said he has talked with are in favor of the bill, which would not only make local elections partisan but also move them from April onto the same November ballot with state and national elections.

Transforming local elections from nonpartisan to partisan, Finch said, would run the risk of “bringing in money and outside influence into local elections that we don’t need.”

“County clerks are not wild about moving the elections from April to November,” Finch added.

Finch said he thought the bill raised more questions than it answered, particularly relating to how local officials would be replaced if they left office before their terms expired.

Lawmakers said the bill could surface for a vote later in the session.

“Pretty much everybody I’ve talked to has not been for that particular bill,” Jones said. “I understand there would not be a substantial savings [from moving the elections to November], and I think it would make [the election process] worse.”

Higher voter turnout, Tyson said, probably is the goal of the effort to move the elections from April to November.

Tyson said she would like to float the idea of moving local elections to November in odd years to give local elections more prominence on the ballot.

“Local elections would stand alone,” Tyson said. “We would keep the dynamics of the elections as is, just move them to November in the odd years. I hope it gets considered.”

Potential amendments

A pair of amendments to the state constitution also are being considered that would change how judges are selected and ensure the state Legislature, and not the courts, would decide what funding is appropriate for public education. All three legislators said they would be in favor of seeing those issues come before the voters. Both amendments would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate and House before they could appear on the ballot.

Finch, however, said he would not vote for either proposal in their current forms because they stipulate the questions would be put on the ballot during the August primary.

“I think either or both need to be voted on during the November election,” Finch said. “A [constitutional] amendment should be voted on by the majority of the public.”

Almeda Edwards, a member of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Action Committee and policy chair for the Franklin County Farm Bureau Association, served as moderator for the coffee meeting. She was assisted by Ottawa resident Zach George, who serves as Finch’s intern in Topeka. The pair handed the microphone to a number of residents who asked questions about school funding.

The three lawmakers said the discussion about what is adequate funding for education — and how it should be measured — is ongoing in both chambers, and much work remained before it could be resolved.

“A lawsuit is filed about every eight years on school finance in this state,” Finch said.

The school funding formula is very complex, Finch said, and deciding what is adequate funding for public education will take more discussion. But he said he was confident the public doesn’t want the courts to decide how much money the state Legislature should spend on education.

“I believe in excellence in education,” Tyson said. “Adequate is a subjective word. In a state budget of $14 billion, over $7 billion of it is going for K-12 funding. We need to use our resources in the best possible way to get the best possible outcome.”

Jones, a Wellsville school board member, said it goes deeper than correlating the amount of state funding coming in to the test scores coming out of schools. One audience member pointed out that Kansas consistently ranked among the Top 10 states in ACT scores.

Tyson also said the Legislature needed to more closely study how at-risk funding should be spent. And she said a proposed bill that would create a local activity budget would raise property taxes for districts that approved it. She wasn’t sure how much traction that bill had at the moment.

With regard to spending, Tyson said she supports lower taxes, but she was not in favor of two provisions of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax plan that removed property tax and mortgage interest deductions.

“I don’t support that, so I’m fighting to keep those deductions in,” she said.

Tyson said she would like to see the deductions reduced proportionately as income taxes are cut.

What’s next?

The senator for Senate District 12 said 260 bills had been introduced in the Senate this session.

“Not all of them made it to the floor obviously, but this past week was turnaround week when we move bills from one Chamber to the other Chamber,” she said. “One bill that we passed was drug testing for those receiving welfare benefits.”

The Senate also passed a bill, Tyson said, that would prevent the secretary of state from receiving Political Action Committee funds.

“That office oversees elections, and so the Senate voted to restrict that office from having PAC money,” she said.

The legislative session, freshman lawmaker Jones said, has been “like getting on a treadmill.”

“We had some 300-some bills on the House side, and it seemed like we worked them all in the last couple of days,” Jones said to laughter from the audience. Jones represents House District 5.

Of those 390 bills, Finch said, the House spent about 10 hours debating 48 bills Thursday. After voting on those, the House took up another 11 bills on Friday, Finch, who represents House District 59, said.

“The more controversial bills were tucked away in committees and are exempt from having to be out by turnaround, so you’re likely to see some of those bills surface later in the session,” Finch said.

Finch, who also gave an update to the Ottawa City Commission at its study session Monday, said six of those bills in exempt committees involved gun legislation that “cover the waterfront.”

“Those bills could come up with little notice,” Finch said.

Two of the bills that Finch cosponsored passed the House and are on their way to the Senate.

HB 2252 would lengthen the statute of limitations from five years to 10 years for rape and aggravated criminal sodomy, Finch said, adding that Kansas is one of the few states in the nation that has a statute of limitations as short as five years for violent sex crimes.

HB 2205 would eliminate a 30-day delay in the adoption process, he said.

Both of those bills were approved by a 123-0 vote.

Jones said legislators are working hard to push the session through in 80 days, while keeping level heads about their work.

“How many snow days do you have built in to your calendar?” Edwards lightheartedly asked the lawmaker.

“None,” Jones said, smiling.

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