Republican leaders of the House and Senate offered calm assurances Thursday there was no justification to fret about the pace of progress in the 2019 legislative session.
On the contrary, Democrats argued, major legislation on education, taxes, Medicaid, the budget and other priorities remain unresolved in a session that started in mid-January.
“If I were driving the train, I’d claim it was a raging success as well,” said Wichita Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat. “The fact of the matter is, this has been as do-nothing Legislature as I have served in over the past six years.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, the Wichita Republican, said the House and Senate voted unanimously to send Gov. Laura Kelly a bill allocating $115 million to make an overdue payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
The Senate also approved a bill delivering $200 million in state income tax relief to multinational corporations and 12 percent of Kansas’ taxpayers, a move designed to pass along a “windfall” to the state treasury resulting from federal tax reform. The upper chamber also sent the House a controversial bill allowing Farm Bureau to market health plans.
Wagle suggested criticism among Democrats about the session’s status shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“Are you kidding?” she said. “I think the Senate has passed some very important bills, some bills that were controversial. We’ve had hours of debates.”
House Majority leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, also pushed back against Democrats’ critique. He said the House moved on a wide range of issues attracting bipartisan majorities.
“The one thing we have to say about what the House has done is we’ve done it truly in a bipartisan manner,” Hawkins said.
The House, so far, has passed 59 bills. Only one — the KPERS payment bill — has been anointed by the Senate. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, hasn’t said whether she would sign, veto or let it become law without her signature. Across the Capitol rotunda, the Senate has passed 41 bills, including three previously approved by the House.
The 2019 Legislature will take a short break before returning to work next Wednesday. It isn’t unusual for the Legislature to delay decisions until March and April, especially legislation with a hefty price tag.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said methodical work of the House reflected a desire to cautiously handle a large budget surplus. He is aware the Kansas Supreme Court expects lawmakers to pass an inflation-adjustment appropriation for K-12 public schools. There will soon be House committee hearings on the Farm Bureau insurance and Medicaid expansion legislation, he said.
“We wanted to make sure we provide security for the future and whatever promises are ones that can be kept,” the House’s top official said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Wagle was blocking consideration of a Medicaid expansion plan recommended by the Democratic governor. If the Senate GOP leadership permitted a vote on Medicaid, which could benefit an estimated 150,000 Kansans, objections to other legislation might evaporate, Hensley said.
He said the windfall tax legislation improperly served interests of Kansas’ wealthy companies and individuals. It should be modified to feature a sales tax rebate open to 380,000 lower-income Kansans. Restoration of the tax break abandoned during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback will cost the state $42 million annually, he said.
“That’s the kind of tax cut I would support, as opposed to giving tax breaks to multinational corporations, many of whom have for decades hidden their income off shore, typically in the Cayman Islands,” Hensley said.
Although the Senate wanted to fast-track the income tax windfall fix, the House Tax Committee added to the bill a 1 percentage point reduction in the statewide sales tax on food and imposition of a sales tax on internet transactions.
Both amendments to the Senate bill have wide support among state legislators, said Rep. Blake Finch, R-Ottawa.
He said closing the internet sales tax loophole was an issue of fundamental fairness to Main Street businesses required to collect sales tax that must compete against online merchants who don’t. The House also approved under-the-radar bills requiring disclosure of state economic development incentives and of budget and enrollment information about community colleges, he said.