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Here's Some Things Kansas Lawmakers Have Done While Avoiding School Spending Drama

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Kansas News Service
Kansas lawmakers appear ready to open business for bigger poultry operations, compensate the wrongly imprisoned and outlaw a dangerous prank. But thornier issues of big money -- for the overall budget and especially schools — will come later this spring.";

Kansas lawmakers head into the next stretch of this year’s legislative session after advancing bills offering tax breaks to some smaller businesses, compensation to people thrown in prison unjustly and a welcome mat to industrial chicken growers.

The bigger, harder questions before them remain unanswered. After gaveling out on Thursday, they take off a few days.

When legislators return, they’ll still need to find a way to comply with a court order to up the state’s education game. That could cost the state another $600 million a year in aid to local school districts.

They’ll need to do that while struggling to balance overall state government spending, a task that’s proven particularly difficult in recent years.

And the lawmakers will revisit whether to expand Medicaid coverage to more of the working poor, an Obamacare flashpoint that’s divided the Republican-dominated legislature from its GOP governors.

Despite the fast pace, education and the budget still remain the major issues for us to address.

“It’s always amazing how fast session moves,” Rep. Don Schroeder, a Republican from Hesston, wrote in his most recent newsletter to constituents. Now, he wrote, “the pace picks up. … Despite the fast pace, education and the budget still remain the major issues for us to address.”

This week, the committees that study and refine bills shut down so that legislators could spend time on the floors of the House and Senate moving bills hatched in one chamber across the Capitol rotunda to the other.

A tax-cut bill that passed the Senate easily may get more intense scrutiny in the House, given the need to free up potentially hundreds of millions of additional dollars to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase public school funding.

The bill restores a small business tax deduction that lawmakers repealed last year when they rolled back then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts. Several senators said they voted for the measure with reservations because of its estimated $21 million cost to next year’s budget.

“We are going to be removing money from our budget today … that we might need, either for schools or, for example, Medicaid expansion,” said Republican Sen. Barbara Bollier, of Mission Hills.

That concern prompted eight of the Senate’s 40 members to vote against the bill, including Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka.

“While there are those who complain how more money for schools will damage other parts of the budget, the first bill of significant cost to the budget is a tax cut,” Hensley said.

That could be a costly misstep in the eyes of the court, Hensely said, if lawmakers struggle to come up with the money needed for schools.

The Senate also passed a bill aimed at enticing more large poultry producers to the state after a lengthy debate about potential consequences to communities and the environment.

Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, was one of several northeast Kansas lawmakers drawn into a controversy late last year over plans by chicken processing giant Tyson to build a plant near Tonganoxie.  Tyson ultimately scrapped its plans for that plant.

“People get really frustrated when they get jerked around by state government and large industrial ag concerns who come in literally overnight and say ‘this is a done deal,’” Holland said.

Holland attempted to add language to the bill to allow residents in a county where such a facility is proposed to petition for a public vote. But his amendment was defeated by senators who argued against doing anything that might discourage poultry processors from expanding in Kansas.

“Part of the state, grant you, does not want this type of operation and that’s understandable,” said Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican. “But there’s other parts of the state that this would fit in quite nicely.”

Estes and others said the millions of pounds of “dry manure” — achieved with industrial methods that lessen the stench — produced by mega chicken-breeding facilities would be used as fertilizer.

Legislation authorizing a system for compensating people who spend time in Kansas prisons for crimes they didn’t commit proved less controversial. On Thursday, both the House and Senate passed compensation bills by wide margins.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner called it an opportunity 'to right a wrong for Kansas.'

In urging passage of the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner called it an opportunity “to right a wrong for Kansas.”

Currently, Kansas is one of 18 states that offers no compensation for individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

The bill passed by the Senate would provide exonerated individuals $50,000 for each year spent in prison and an additional $25,000 for each year on probation or parole.

The House-passed bill is more generous. It authorizes $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.

A conference committee of House and Senate members will start working to reconcile the bills next week when lawmakers return.

And lawmakers have advanced legislation that would make “swatting” illegal. That push came after the death of a man in Wichita last year. What started with a rivalry between online gamers ended with police crashing into what they’d been tricked into thinking was a hostage situation and shooting Andrew Finch.

Swatting, as in summoning a police SWAT team with a phony 9-1-1 call, is a prank associated largely with gamers. Partly because they battle long distance, swatting is a way to pursue revenge in the real world.

The legislation would set stiff penalties for reporting a bogus situation with the intent of sending police out to attack a person’s home.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. 

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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