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2008 Session Roundups: Kansas

Gridlock on the top issues dominated Kansas’ legislative session and prevented movement on most significant legislation.  This generally played out to progressives favor as the legislative majorities top priorities for the session were misguided immigration policies and granting permits for two coal-fired power plants that the executive branch had previously denied.

Environment:  In a move that had reverberations around the country, last fall the state’s top environmental regulator turned down applications for two coal-burning power plants in Holcomb, Kansas because of the carbon dioxide emissions.  This was the first time in the country that a state regulator had denied a permit based on this factor, citing the Supreme Courts decision that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, which the states enforce.  A court in Georgia recently revoked a permit for a coal-burning plant for the same reason.

The decision created an uproar in the coal industry and the Legislature, where granting the permits was the leaderships top priority.  However, this legislative action was counterbalanced by polls showing strong support of 70% among Kansans for blocking the plant permits.  The issue dominated the legislative session, but in the end, the Legislature failed by as little as one vote to override vetoes of three separate bills that would have overturned the decision.  Governor Sebelius has now created the Kansas Energy and Environmental Policy group (KEEP) to make recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state.  Unfortunately, the same bill that creates KEEP also allows nuclear plant construction costs to be passed on to electricity ratepayers.

Immigration:  The Kansas House this year voted to gut an anti-immigrant bill, SB 329, added provisions to severely punish employers exploiting undocumented immigrants by violating state wage laws and cracked down on misclassification of independent contractors.  The inclusion of strong pro-worker provisions resulted in an impasse with the Senate's purely anti-immigrant version, killing a legislative priority of anti-immigrant advocates, but delighting immigrant advocates.

Elections:  The legislature made a couple very minor improvements in the state’s election practices.

  • Early VotingSB 65 expands to smaller counties the option of having satellite early voting sites.
  • CampaignsSB 196 prohibits the use of public money, property or supplies from being used to advocate for or against a candidate for public office; and stipulates that public buildings must be open to all candidates equally for the purpose of handing out campaign materials.

Pre-K: Partly due to a state Supreme Court judgment demanding greater school funding equity, preschool programs were one of the few to receive additional funding, leading to the Governor launching a new "P-20 Education Council" to coordinate education and workforce development from pre-K through college.

Tax Policy 

  • Property Taxes:  The legislature enacted a tax credit for seniors with incomes up to 120% of the federal poverty rate to offset almost half of their property tax payments.  The rate of credit will increase to 75% of property taxes in 2011.
  • Corporate Taxes:  The top income-tax rate for corporations will decrease .35% by 2011, while an accounting change will increase the amount of corporate taxable income.

Healthcare:  For another year Kansas failed to move forward with significant healthcare reform.  This happened in spite of the Legislature having directed the Kansas Health Policy Authority to make recommendations for increasing the health of people in the state.  The main recommendations were to ban smoking in public places and increase the tax on cigarettes to boost subsidies to cover low-income Kansans.  None of the significant recommendations passed into law.  This is in spite of the Governor’s strong lobbying and the fact that Kansans’ overwhelmingly support access to care, and are willing to pay for it. One bill that did pass, SB 365, tasks a collection of executive agencies with developing a statewide long-term care strategy, including the provision of home and community-based services.  This process will also involve stakeholders and advocates.

With a regressive legislative agenda from the majority, the Kansas legislative session was noted by the bad policies defeated and the inability to subvert the governor’s groundbreaking moves on global warming.  With the people of the state giving strong support to basic progressive change in healthcare and the environment things appear to be heading slowly in a positive direction.