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New Kansas Legislature Takes On Tough Issues in 2017 Session

The Kansas Statehouse. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)
The Kansas Statehouse. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

The Kansas Legislature began its new session today (MON). State lawmakers face several big challenges this year, like filling a sizeable budget hole and writing a new school funding formula. And, as Stephen Koranda reports, many new leaders and lawmakers will be working to tackle these issues.

One of the biggest changes at the Kansas Statehouse this year is that more moderate-leaning Republicans and more Democrats have moved into office. In both chambers, the new top leaders got their jobs by promising to work with the new, more diverse caucus.
“It’s all hands on deck. If someone’s willing to find a way to get to a ‘yes,’ we’re willing to listen,” says incoming Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman.

Another top Republican in the chamber, Majority Leader Don Hineman, says the 2017 Legislature is sort of broken down into thirds between conservative and more moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.
“No one faction can rule the day and have things totally their way. We’re going to be forced to work together to achieve good legislation and I think that’s a good thing,” says Hineman.
The top Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Jim Ward, says Democrats are willing to work with others to help solve these issues, and he says now’s the time to act.
“Because of the crisis we’re in, there is no quick fix, easy way out. That forces us to take advantage of that and fix some things, and that’s another great opportunity,” says Ward.
The new divisions will force lawmakers to build coalitions in order to get things done. Lawrence Journal-World Statehouse reporter Peter Hancock says a big part of that coalition building will mean wooing the larger group of moderate Republicans.
“I think this is going to be a great time to be a moderate Republican," says Hancock. "It’s like the most popular girl at the dance, you’ve got everybody asking you to get up and dance."
In previous sessions, a lot of deal-making on taxes and budgets required late nights and last-minute compromises. But Republican Senate President Susan Wagle says this year might be different.
“I predict we will get down to business rather quickly. Everyone that ran for office is well aware that the public wants a balanced budget,” says Wagle.
Lawmakers have to fill a nearly $350 million budget hole for the current fiscal year. That’s almost 6 percent of the state general fund portion of the budget. There's a deficit approaching $600 million in the next fiscal year.

Some recent spending plans have avoided more serious cuts or tax increases by using one-time budget maneuvers. Wagle says that's not as likely this time. 
“I can assure you, the legislators I talk to are opposed to a one-time-borrow-to-plug-a-hole solution,” says Wagle.
But what will Governor Sam Brownback propose? So far, he's only given a few hints. He does say his plan will use more than one strategy.
“We’ll do a mixture of both cuts and revenues. The size of the hole that we’re looking at, I think, is one where you’re just going to have to do some mixture. And none of it’s going to be something that people are going to be particularly excited about. At the end of the day, you've got to come up with a balanced budget, and we will,” says Brownback.
There’s also the big issue of school funding. Lawmakers need to write a new funding plan to replace temporary block grants put in place two years ago.
“I think the block grant has worked overall pretty well, but it’s based on a two-year set two years ago. Things change. I don’t think we ought to go another year,” says Brownback.
That’s made even more complicated by a pending Kansas Supreme Court ruling. The state's high court could tell lawmakers they aren’t adequately funding schools and needs to spend more. Democratic House Leader Jim Ward says they need to get cracking on a new plan that might be able to address such a ruling. 
“Now it’s on our table. We’ve got a clock ticking. I think what we do in addressing a new school finance formula will have a big impact on the remedy that comes from the Supreme Court,” says Ward.
Other issues that could come to the surface include Medicaid expansion and amending a law that will allow concealed firearms on college campuses starting this summer. 
There’s lots of talk right now about working together to solve problems, but the question is if that spirit of unity will hold up when it’s time to take tough votes on legislation?

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.