The state’s longest legislative session went pretty smoothly until the 90th day passed, according to Sen. Mitch Holmes (R-St. John). The last 23 days, during which legislators struggled to approve a budget and the method for funding it, were more contentious. It was discovered Friday that they aren’t quite done with business.
House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office said they had inadvertently passed two conflicting versions of a new law holding down local property taxes. Legislators were already scheduled to convene June 26 for a brief adjournment ceremony; in addition they will pass a reconciliation bill.
Included as a part of a two-bill package to increase sales and cigarette tax was a measure that would prohibit cities and counties from spending an increase in property tax revenues above the rate of inflation. One version said the law would take effect in July, another in 2018. Gov. Sam Brownback signed both measures last week.
The House approved both bills in the early morning hours of June 12, after staying in session on and off for more than 20 hours. Legislators have grumbled in the past that such marathon meetings lead to mistakes, the Associated Press reported.
Holmes voted for the measure to raise state sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent.
“I stood up in chambers and asked, ‘how many Republicans does it take to raise taxes?’ It got quite a laugh,” he said. “Republicans don’t like to raise taxes as a general rule.”
Holmes said he moved from his original position of not wanting to raise taxes as the session progressed, because “we had to do something.” Significant budget cuts that had already occurred helped sway him to vote for the tax increase.
The Senate had pushed to drop the sales tax on food to as little as 4.95 percent, which he said softened the issue for him.
“I don’t know why the House refused to accept that,” he commented.”
Holmes is among a group of legislators who plan to introduce a bill before the next session convenes in January to reduce the tax on food. As a stand-alone measure, he believes the issue will have a better chance of passing.
Holmes also reluctantly voted to increase the tax on cigarettes by 50 cents a pack to $1.29.
The two bills together are expected to raise $384 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1. Brownback still might have to cut up to $50 million in spending to balance the budget and end with a small cushion for the fiscal year that begins July 2016.
Early in the session Holmes introduced a Help America Vote Act to change school board and municipal elections from April of odd years to November. SB 171 called for local elections to be held in conjunction with state and national races to increase voter turnout.
The bill that was ultimately passed moves the elections to November of odd years.
He believes the compromise will have some effect. Research examined by the Ethics and Election committee that Holmes chairs indicated that April elections typically bring out 5 to 15 percent of eligible voters. A 30 to 45 percent turnout would be expected in November of odd years.
The bill is a “good first step” to eventually moving elections to even years, according to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, quoted in an Associated Press report.
The Kansas League of Municipalities credits outreach by city officials for allowing municipal elections to retain their own election cycle in odd years and remain nonpartisan.
Kansas Association of School Boards opposed the change in timing; with an April election, board members take office prior to the beginning of a budget year. The association said it would support a mail-in ballot for April elections.
Holmes voted for a bill that repeals the current education funding formula and replaces it for two years with block grants that appropriate money to districts based on 2014-15 enrollment.
“That, in my estimation, reduced a lot of contention when we got to the final budget because school funding had already been decided,” Holmes said.
He believes the block grant will give predictability for school boards and for legislators. Last year, he said, legislators thought they were adding $130 million in funding that, with weighting factors, turned out to be $300 million.
He said the bill includes some “variableness that would deal with fluctuation in expenses.”
School administrators argue that funding based on the current year enrollment will not be adequate if districts gain a significant number of students or if a higher percentage of children are classified as at-risk.
The Kansas Department of Education estimates districts will lose $51 million in state aid they were expecting in fiscal year 2016.
During the two years the block grants are in effect, legislators will study a new finance formula. The goal is to have something ready for debate next January, Holmes said.
He believes the new formula should not be based on a strict head count of students, but on a range of student numbers.
“It doesn’t cost any less to have a class off 10 people than a class of 18 people,” he said. “We need to look at the cost to have that class.”
He favors keeping some weighting in place.
“I would want to make arrangements for transportation and special education,” he said.
Holmes said that even in a contentious year, legislators in Kansas are “pretty civil — we don’t have fistfights like some states.”
The pressure increased after the 90 days, as costs soared — at an estimated $43,000 per day, the extended session cost the state $989,000.