News from the Capitol--May 28, 2015

The Veto Session is now almost a month old, as we continue to work through the budget and tax discusses which are dominating the debate here in Topeka. The challenge we face is to balance the budget as required by the Kansas Constitution in a way that is as non-burdensome to the taxpayer as possible. This historic session represents a test of our ability to work together, and also a test of our resolve to not go back on our word to the people of Kansas with our paradigm shift to a consumption economy.

On this front, The House Tax Committee worked long hours and held several hearings to vet different proposals to adjust the state’s tax code to assist in balancing the budget. The committee will continue its hearings next for the rest of this week as the differences on the issues continue to narrow as consensus builds. Meanwhile, the Senate is holding floor debates this week on its proposal.

As we await the final product on the budget and tax front, we have been working on other important legislation, mainly in the area of elections. The above quote from Thomas Jefferson served as a theme for this week’s work, where we adopted two key pieces of elections-related legislation:

Local Elections to Fall of Odd Years
Local government, by definition, is the closest to the people. Yet, year after year, turnout for our local elections has been abysmally low. In some years it ranged from 8% to 16% voter participation. This is partially due to the time of year and it is also due to the fact that the system, at present, discourages good candidates from seeking local office. The resulting impact was that far too few races were even contested, and they were being decided by a small, highly motivated group of special interests, which is not healthy either, as local issues deserve to be as vigorously debated as state and federal issues, and those officials need to be chosen by the broadest cross section of the voters as possible.

After many hearings, debate and input from stakeholders at all levels, the House passed HB 2104, which moves local elections to the fall of odd numbered years starting in 2017. The bill mirrors election dates currently held in the even years for both primary and general elections. This includes cities, counties, school districts, community colleges, water districts, etc. Local governing bodies will be able to decide how to adjust for those currently serving terms and when those positions would be filled, as long as the term is not shortened. A city councilman indicated to me earlier in that year that he favored fall elections in odd years more than even years.

As a result of this new system, candidates will now have sufficient time to campaign in their cities or school districts, some of which cover a large population, which was not realistic to in the time allotted under the current system.

Another important aspect of the law is to ensure local units of government are complying with current statutes requiring that military ballots be mailed 45 days before an election. Currently when cities have primaries, they are within 30 days of the general election, preventing sufficient time for military members serving overseas to get their ballots counted on time. This change to the fall election schedule will permit ample time to address these balloting issues.

The House passed the conference committee report for HB 2104 on Thursday, May 21st, with a vote of 64-58. I voted YES.

Elections Crimes
The House on Thursday passed SB 34, which would strengthen penalties for voter fraud and would give the Secretary of State the authority to prosecute elections crimes. The bill would create a separate crime of voting more than once, classifying it as a severity level 7 nonperson felony. Also, the crime of voting or attempting to vote at an election by a person who is not a U.S. citizen would be increased from a class A misdemeanor to a severity level 7 nonperson felony. The Secretary of State would also be given independent authority to prosecute any person for a Kansas election crime, along with the Attorney General and county procesutors.

The right to vote is one of the most important and sacred rights that U.S. citizens have. As such, the one-man-one-vote principle must be treated very seriously under the law. Many Kansas House races in recent years have been determined by just a handful of votes. A fraudulent vote that is cast can effectively nullify a vote cast by a lawful voter and can reverse the course of an election. For this reason, it is critical that the votes of Kansans be protected by the heightened prosecution of these crimes provided for in the bill.

I received some objections to this bill from District Attorneys and other local prosecutors, and while I respect their point of view, it seemed to me their opposition stemmed from a territorial kind of outlook than one based on any substantive reason. From my vantage point, it is logical sense that the chief elections officer in our state would have the authority to investigate and prosecute election-related crimes. We received testimony that there are reports of double voting that deserve attention, and this bill would allow the Secretary of State the authority to do so. Every vote is important; every single one.

The House passed SB 34 on Thursday, May 21st, by a vote of 64-55. I voted YES.

DUI Law Update
Last year, a repeat drunk driver struck and permanently disabled Mija Stockman of McPherson. She was a school teacher driving home when she was hit, altering her life forever. The damage from the accident was extensive and resulted in Mija needing lifelong nursing care. The man charged with the accident received only two years in prison because of the severity level of aggravated battery while driving under the influence (DUI).

The House on Thursday passed the conference committee report for HB 2055, which would count a previous first conviction of DUI as a nonperson felony and previous subsequent DUI convictions as person felonies for the purpose of criminal history when the current crime of conviction is aggravated battery while DUI. If this would have been in effect at the time, the driver who hit Mija would have faced longer prison time because of the DUI convictions he had previous to the aggravated battery while DUI.

The House adopted the conference committee report for HB 2055 on Thursday, May 21st, by a vote of 122-0.

Conference Committee Reports/Concurs
This week, the House approved the following conference committee reports or concurred with changes made by the Senate.

HB 2170 – creates the Freedom from Unsafe Restraint and Seclusion Act, which specifies the use of seclusion and restraint of students in school settings. (111-1)

HB 2395 – increases the threshold of capital improvement costs to $1 million before requiring a meeting of the State Building Advisory Commission. The commission was established in 1978. (110-4)

HB 2025 – amends the current Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training dealing with requirements for officer certification. (122-0)

S Sub HB 2124 – amends the Public indoor smoking ban to allow for medical research facilities to conduct smoking cessation trials without violating the state ban on smoking, which still exempts state-owned casinos. (122-0)

Back to the Budget
As I said at the outset, the main task that remains is passing the budget and a tax package that makes fiscal sense. I am committed to ensuring that we do not retreat on the gains we have made towards making Kansas a great place to locate a business and raise a family, and that means not reversing the policies which have helped usher in the economic growth we have enjoyed. While I recognize that we must adopt a tax policy that meets the current need, it is very important what that tax policy looks like.