Legislative Update – Turnaround Week March 1-5, 2021

Up to this point, much of the Kansas Legislature’s work has been hearing and passing out relatively simple bills – what’s creatively termed internally as “Rats and Cats.” Many of the bills passed out of the House last session, but languished in the Senate before the session was cut short at the outset of the Covid-19 

This week is what’s known as “Turn Around,” where bills are set to leave their chamber of origin. This means that many House bills will be debated, voted on, and sent over to the Senate – and vice versa. Of course, there are still many mechanisms to keep bills alive in each Chamber. But it does mean that we’ll spend a great deal of time on the House floor next week debating a lot of bills before the mid-way point of the session. 

KDOL Modernization 

The Commerce, Labor, and Economic Development committee passed out a massive Unemployment System Modernization bill. But what began as a 70-plus-page piece of legislation to decide how future modernization efforts will be implemented and reviewed ended up as a far-reaching bill filled with layers of bureaucratic inefficiencies that I feel will compromise the state’s ability to effectively respond to the next financial or unemployment crisis. 

I’ll try not to get too in the weeds on this, but here are a few of the key provisions of the bill. 

  • Creates a council to oversee and direct the modernization effort. Not entirely bad, but if you’ve ever tried to manage anything big by committee you understand when I say this could slow rather than speed up modernization efforts. If the committee serves as an oversight board and refrains from micromanaging, it could work out OK. But legislators love to meddle, and flex their big ideas and powerful seats, so I have some concerns. 
  • Changes the employer rate schedule to replenish the unemployment trust fund. This was needed, and without some adjustment employers would experience unbearable rate increases. 
  • The bill restricts the weeks of benefit available to displaced workers by tying the time one can collect unemployment to a statewide average unemployment rate. This presents a number of concerns I raised in the committee. It doesn’t account for isolated or local realities in unemployment. Also, the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the full story of job availability in a region. There have been times when unemployment was exceedingly low in Western Kansas – indicating in some cases that nearly every available job had been filled. This measure creates an arbitrary barrier to benefits that doesn’t take into consideration the realities on the ground. 
  • During the committee process, the bill was amended to include a re-employment program. This will require KDOL to send information out to claimants at the 4-week mark, and requires claimants to endure additional paperwork and reporting. It also burdens KDOL staff with repeated follow ups and a new level of case management that could further bog down the unemployment system in a crisis. It’s also punitive to workers, and carries a tone of disdain for displaced workers – as if they have simply been waiting for the opportunity to collect unemployment. I don’t believe that’s the case, and I feel this measure will create unnecessary levels of bureaucracy. 
  • Another amendment added to the bill requires KDOL to send information over to the Department of Children and Family Services when a claimant has secured a job. There is only one reason for this, and it’s punitive in nature. It further underscores the prevailing idea among the majority in the legislature that people on unemployment are “freeloaders” who would rather live off of benefits than to work. In addition to being unnecessarily skeptical to those on unemployment, it likewise creates an additional layer of bureaucracy that will complicate things for claimants and KDOL staff alike. 
  • There are a lot of issues in KDOL right now, and it has been incredibly frustrating for anyone trying to collect benefits. In some cases, it’s created incredible hardships for families, and the State of Kansas owes it to them to fix these issues. In my view there are two primary elements that have created the issues we’re dealing with right now. One is an antiquated computer system that is more than 40 years old. The other is the layer upon layer upon layer of requirements that have made navigating the system and processing claims unwieldy. The bill that emerged from the Commerce, Labor, and Economic Development Committee won’t ease those issues, and in fact creates additional hurdles to anyone trying to access benefits. It treats Kansas workers with disdain and forces them to jump through even more hurdles in a time of need. 

HB2119 – The Frankenstein Education Bill 

Much like the KDOL bill in Commerce, this education bill was loaded up with amendments that kept making a bad piece of legislation even worse. It touches on so many areas, and proposes so many changes that even the Cliff Notes version of the bill in the Supplemental Note is rather large. The bill expands a voucher program that would allow public money to be siphoned off for enrollment in private schools. It tinkers with the weightings currently in use for financing public education, and punishes those schools that use remote or hybrid learning. This bill makes a lot of changes to the financing of public education. 

In my opinion, this is an example of legislation based on what’s in the rearview mirror. We are emerging from a once-in-100-year event, and the Kansas legislature is building school finance policy based around what has happened, instead of what might apply in the future. If most members had a forward-looking view of the world, we could turn some of the struggles of this pandemic into opportunities. While most everyone agrees that in-person learning is best, schools’ adaptation to remote and hybrid learning should be celebrated, not punished. We could look for ways to incorporate the technology in a way that would expand access to education and provide students in even the most remote areas a way to access teachers and resources remotely. Unfortunately, the majority’s long-standing feud with education has reached its tentacles into this piece of legislation. 

Personal Point

Last week, I offered an amendment to HB2277 during floor debate. The bill changed the definition of possession of a drug, and the amendment changed the definition of paraphernalia to specifically exclude fentanyl testing strips from that criminal charge. The body supported the amendment on a voice vote. 

The change represents what is possible when regular people maintain regular contact with their elected officials. I wouldn’t have known anything about this had it not been for advocates in my community who pointed out to me this wrinkle in the law that potentially made it a crime to use testing strips to determine the presence of the dangerous drug fentanyl – as well as how many lives such testing could save. This is incredibly important in a time when we’re hearing such harrowing stories about addiction to opioids in communities across Kansas. This epidemic is causing pain for so many families, but there are good people working to prevent overdose deaths and help people recover. Because of their dedication and passion – as well as their effort to keep me informed of things I might not otherwise know or understand – we were able to address their concerns in legislation. 

Winter storm and Utilities

The intense winter weather earlier this month that brought record-low temperatures to much of the middle part of the country – including areas that typically don’t experience winter weather – has created considerable concern about a dramatic rise in electricity and natural gas prices. While I don’t expect we’ll see the sort of dramatically high utility bills we’ve heard about in Texas, it’s quite likely that many people could see considerable increases in their utility bills. Fortunately, Kansas has a number of tools and mechanisms to alleviate or at least spread out the price spike. Many people have called for an investigation into the sudden uptick in prices, citing skepticism that it touches on price gouging during a weather crisis. If you need help paying your utility bills, please don’t hesitate to apply for assistance through LIEAP.

Coming Up

This week we’ll spend most of our time on the floor pushing legislation out to the Senate. In addition to the aforementioned KDOL and Education bills, I expect another piece of significant legislation will address the Kansas Emergency Management Act, or KEMA. At first glance, both the Senate and House versions seem to put extraordinary restrictions on any governor’s ability to manage a crisis. More concerning, it creates a legislative panel that will have to sign off on a governor’s executive orders. If there’s one thing the Kansas Legislature loves, it’s giving itself more authority – and it seems this bill is another example of reactionary legislation that grants broad powers to a handful of people in key leadership positions. 

Reach Out

It is a privilege and honor to serve as your state representative.  Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions.  My office address is Room 359-W, 300 SW 10th, Topeka, KS 66612.  You can reach me at (785) 296-7630 or call the legislative hotline at 1-800-432-3924 to leave a message for me.  Additionally, you can email me at jason.probst@house.ks.gov and follow my updates on social media @thatguyinhutch.  You can also track the legislative session online at  www.kslegislature.org

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