Revenues and Taxes. Kansas' revenue crisis and the State's budget are inherently intertwined. Even with lowered revenue estimates by the State's consensus revenue experts in November, monthly revenue receipts going forward in 2016 are uncertain at best.
The Legislative Budget committee was told in December that the State's ending balance by June 30 will be only $5 million. A minimum ending balance should be $100 million to pay all bills on time. By existing law, which is waived by legislators, the ending balance should be 7.5% ($450 million). The forecast for the 2017 State budget - that starts July 1, 2016 - is a $170 million deficit.
After a series of state budget cuts caused by the 2009 recession and the 2011-13 budget cuts initiated by the Governor to fund income tax cuts, further arbitrary, across-the-board budget cuts will likely be proposed for 2017. After signing a sales tax increase and forcing schools and local governments to raise property taxes in 2015, the Governor has removed further tax changes off the table in an election year.
School Finance. Having under-funded and then scrapped the existing public school funding formula, the 2015 Kansas Legislature passed a two year fixed block grant - 2016 & 2017 - for public schools, thus buying time to write a new funding formula. Considering the pending $170 million budget deficit for 2017 and that public schools comprise 50% of the State budget, it is hard to believe that the block grant will be fully funded in 2017.
In 2015, the Kansas Legislature withheld $54 million in funding intended to equalize funding for poorer school districts. A district court has ruled this reduction in funding was unconstitutional. The Kansas Supreme Court may well order the restoration of this funding during the 2016 legislative session.
A district court panel of judges has also ruled that Kansas has inadequately funded the previous public school funding formula by close to $500 million. This case will take several months to be fully adjudicated.
While many conservatives would prefer vouchers allowing parents to select any public or private school, it is unlikely that enacting a new school funding formula will occur in this election year. The future of public education in Kansas hangs in the balance.
Judiciary System. The independence of the Kansas' judiciary is in jeopardy. The Governor and the Kansas Legislature passed law moving the administration of the 31 district courts from the Kansas Supreme Court to the individual districts. There is now a district court ruling declaring this law unconstitutional.
Just before Christmas, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the Legislature's just passed law, declaring that the administration of district courts is constitutionally under the jurisdiction of the Kansas Supreme Court. The Kansas Legislature bundled their law with the entire budget of the Kansas court system so that if the new law was reversed by the court, the court system budget would be zeroed out thus shutting the courts down. This provision of negating the court's budget has been put on hold until March 15 to give the Legislature time to reconsider all options.
While the Governor was successful in passing a law that gives the Governor the authority to select new justices to the Kansas Court of Appeals with confirmation by the Kansas Senate, it will take a constitutional amendment to change the selection of Kansas Supreme Court justices. This proposal has passed the Kansas Senate but has not garnered the necessary 84 votes in the Kansas House.
This battle now turns to the ballot box since sitting Supreme Court and Court of Appeals justices must face votes of retention every four years. In 2016, five of the seven Supreme Court justices along with six of the fourteen Appeals Court justices will be on the ballot. Special interest money is flowing into Kansas to influence these retention elections. Separation of the executive/administrative, legislative, and judicial branches is at stake.
Social Services. Social services continue to struggle under severe budgetary restraints. The state mental hospital at Osawatomie has now lost federal accreditation due to staffing shortages and inadequate security measures for staff.
Having privatized the entire foster care system twenty years ago, foster care costs keep increasing and Kansas now has a record number of foster children - 6,600 - in state custody. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is the most important public assistance program for our poorest families. Since 2011, the number of clients has fallen from 38,963 to 13,592. Over 15,000 children have lost TANF; and Kansas has little idea what happened to these kids.
Medicaid Expansion. Conservatives have fought hard to block the expansion of Medicaid (Kan Care) thus denying 150,000 very low income, working Kansans from having basic medical care. One rural southeast Kansas hospital has already closed and many more are in severe financial straits. Federal taxes paid by Kansans are funding Medicaid expansion in 30 other states. Kansas is losing out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars that would provide several thousand new jobs. This Kan Care expansion could be self-funded through provider taxes and savings in mental health and prison population health costs.
Water Vision Plan and Water Issues. Definitive funding for the Governor's 50-year Water Vision has been delayed. After hundreds of public meetings and input from 14 water basin regions, the plan was to have a Blue Ribbon Economic Task Force in place in the fall of 2015 to have final priorities and a funding plan for the 2016 session. Now the Task Force will deliberate in 2016 for the 2017 session.
Water rights disputes and how to establish an administrative process within the Kansas Department of Agriculture to settle these disputes before court action is instituted will be debated. Because of the ongoing budget deficits, the State Water Plan will likely not be funded with State budget funds but may rely solely on water and chemical fees thus reducing the funding from $24 million to $14 million.
Noxious Weeds. Senate Bill 134 was introduced in 2015 to fundamentally amend the Kansas Noxious Weed law. The bill will move the listing of noxious weeds from being in statute to a streamlined administrative rule and regulation process. This seemingly simple administrative change actually has big potential impacts on the emerging specialty crop sector of fruit and vegetable growers, as well as organic growers.
Twelve noxious weeds are now listed in statute. Legislation must be passed to list a new noxious weed to the state list. Under SB 134, the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture becomes a 'weed czar' by taking recommendations from a hand-picked noxious weed advisory committee. The KDA Secretary will also have special emergency powers to declare any plant a potential 'noxious weed', as will county commissions with the Secretary's approval. There is no definition of a 'noxious weed' in statute and no policy on using the safest, least toxic methods to control weeds first, and no definition of drift.
Local Food and Farming. A seven member 'local food and farm' task force - created by the 2014 Kansas Legislature - met throughout 2015 to develop recommendations for the 2016 session. The task force will provide a statewide analysis of promoting and expanding specialty crop agriculture such as produce and grapes.
The task force 2016 Kansas report will be a beginning to develop a comprehensive plan with detailed recommendations for financial incentives, technical support, local food infra-structures and funding needs to make fresh and affordable locally grown foods more accessible. The report will be presented by the task force to the Legislature early in the session.
Other Issues. There is no way to predict every important issue for the 2016 session. There are several hundred bills held over from the 2015 session that could be debated. Some high profile issues like guns on college campuses in Kansas will garner a lot of attention. The exclusion of colleges, municipal governments and libraries from allowing concealed carry of guns in buildings without metal detectors expires on July 1, 2017 so legislation will be proposed to enact a different policy. The prisons in Kansas - that now have 9,463 beds - are over capacity by at least 100. Projections are that in a few years the over capacity will be 1,000. There will be a debate over paying counties to house these prisoners or building a new wing at the prison in El Dorado.
Many conservatives are still opposed to the EPA's Clean Power Plan rule that will reduce greenhouse gases by 30% through burning less coal, relying more on natural gas, expanding the use of renewable energy such as wind power and improving the use of electricity through conservation and efficiency. Lawsuits will continue to block this plan.
2016 Elections. 2016 is an election year with all members and seats up for election. In 2014, 248 candidates for the Kansas House spent $3.6 million on their campaigns and the average cost for the winners was $22,080. Political action committees (PAC) and out-of-state organizations spent an additional $1.9 million. In 2012, an average Kansas Senator spent $94,000 to win their seat and this does not include the out-of-state and PAC money. In the 2014 Kansas House campaigns, PAC's and out-of-state organizations spent over 50% of the campaign costs and one has to wonder what they want for their contributions?
Kansas is truly at a crossroads. The quality of life in Kansas is at stake. The solid, stable sensible Kansas revenue policy of balancing property, sales and income taxes has been broken as Kansas lowers and eliminates the income tax for the wealthiest Kansans while working Kansans struggle with the nation's second highest sales tax on groceries . One in six Kansas households are food insecure.
The existing tax plan severely limits any restoration of budget cuts to vital state services, while keeping Kansas on the path to completely eliminating the income tax for individuals and then corporations. The Mississippi model of greater income disparity, failing public schools, second class universities, shattered social services, inadequate public safety and deteriorating highways is the path that Kansas is on with the Governor's tax experiment.
Will Kansans vote based on their displeasure and dismay at the 2015 Session and behavior of their elected leaders? Will another vision begin to take shape? 2016 is your electoral chance to support candidates with that alternative vision. Let the games begin.
Paul Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org