As we enter the 2018 Kansas Legislative Session, it is clear the legislature has much work to do ahead. However, the question remains whether the legislative leadership who sets the agenda and calendars will use the time productively or, as they have for much of the past, procrastinate until the final hour to solve the most major problems facing our state.
Here's a look ahead of the issues that we must address in the upcoming legislative session, which begins on Monday, January 8, 2018.
If you have ideas for legislation or suggestions for how to improve government, please contact me.
1. School Finance
In October, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to both provide more funding to school districts as well as ensure that the funding was better distributed to create equity between poor and rich districts across the state. The Supreme Court has given the Legislature until April 30 of this year to craft a new plan and to submit it to the Court for review. The Court is determined to act by not later than June 30, 2018.
2. Taxes & Budget
While both Republicans and Democrats were able to successfully override Gov. Brownback's veto of the tax bill last year, the revenue produced by that legislation only filled the holes. The legislation didn't produce enough revenue to restore cuts to basic state highways, social services and education. The tax legislation from last session did nothing to address funding short-falls that the Legislature is under court-order to correct before April 30th of this year (see above). The Court did not require a specific funding amount for schools, however, many expect this to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The debate now centers on whether the Legislature should adopt additional revenue enhancements to fund education or make additional cuts from basic social services and state highways to fund the school finance legislation.
3. Foster Care
The Department of Children and Families (DCF) has a new Secretary. Former Secretary Phyllis Gilmore resigned in November and Gina Meier-Hummel was named the new Secretary of DCF in December by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. Last week, Lt. Gov. Colyer and Meier-Hummel announced $16 million in budget allocations had been made over the next two budget years to address major short-comings in Kansas' foster care system, including more than 70 missing children.
Other than the additional $16 million in funding over the next two budget years and a promise to do better, it's not clear what precisely Secretary Meier-Hummel will do to correct systemic problems in the Department of Children and Families.
4. Criminal Justice Reform Marijuana
Since my first election, I have been a proponent of ending the prohibition on marijuana and have introduced legislation on providing safe access to marijuana for medicinal purposes. This year, I again plan to sponsor similar legislation. While it remains to be seen whether committee leaders will give this legislation a fair hearing in the 2018 session, two events may convince the Legislature to act on marijuana for at least medical reasons.
First, the Kansas Speaks poll conducted by the Docking Institute at Ft. Hays State University twice polled marijuana during 2017. In the spring, more than 75% of Kansans supported ending marijuana prohibition in regards to medical treatments, and more than half of Kansans supported outright legalization. In the Fall of 2017, FHSU again asked respondents about marijuana legalization and 49% supported and 41% opposed. You can review the findings from the Spring and Fall reports.
Second, we started the 2018 legislative session with troubling video released from Finney County of Rep. Steve Alford saying that African Americans were genetically predisposed to abusing marijuana. Rep. Alford's comments were bigoted and ignorant, but did help to illustrate the viewpoints that are pervasive among some members of the Legislature - they see dialogue about criminal justice reform and marijuana as beneficial to African American communities and refuse to act because of those bigoted viewpoints.
It was reported that Rep. Alford resigned both chairman spots, including his seat upon the DCF Oversight Committee. There is no place for these ignorant viewpoints anywhere, but especially not in the Kansas Legislature.