First key bills to pass are mostly symbolic

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JIM O’MALLEY
TOPEKA–The House and Senate were busy last week, passing many bills and sending them on to the other chamber. But two of the most significant bills were largely symbolic.

Symbolic education vote

A bill to increase state aid to school districts by $20 per pupil passed the Senate 31-7. But it was a symbolic measure because the bill did not provide financing for the increase.

Senate President Dave Kerr, R-Hutchinson, said he voted yes because the bill was put forward as a litmus test for support of education.

“Many people do not yet appreciate the seriousness of the budget shortfall we face for FY 2003,” he said. “While I believe schools would benefit from additional funding, I doubt our ability to provide it, and the bill will not make any difference. Nonetheless, I am a friend of education, and I vote yes.”

Sen. Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, also voted yes with similar reservations. He said, “I would advise school districts to be very cautious in deciding to incorporate this addition to base state aid in their financial planning.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he voted for the bill because the Legislature should honor its commitments to the schools.

But Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said he voted no based on a simple fiscal principle. “You can’t spend money you don’t have,” he said.

Symbolic abortion vote

The Senate also narrowly passed a bill that would authorize “Choose life” license plates, to fund aid to women in crisis pregnancies and to encourage adoption.

The 21-19 vote may signal close fights over more substantive abortion-related bills that have been introduced.

The Health Care Provider Right of Conscience Act would give health care workers the right to sue for discrimination if they are fired for refusing to participate in medical procedures, including abortion and birth control.

Another bill would make it harder for a minor to obtain an abortion without parental notification.

Other action: Education

Senate Bill 551. A bill that would allow a school district that consolidates with another district to combine the two state-aid budgets for the succeeding four years passed the Senate 39-1. Under current law, the budgets are combined for only one year.

Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, said the Legislature lacked the will to force school-district consolidation, but that the bill was intended to encourage small districts to consolidate. Giving a voluntarily consolidated district the higher base state aid per pupil of the former smaller districts for four years would help encourage consolidation.

Sen. Stan Clark, R-Oakley, said that small districts may get more state money per pupil but that they had disadvantages compared to large districts. High schools in larger districts can offer 30 or 40 elective courses, Clark said, but small districts can offer only a core curriculum.

The bill would make consolidation easier, Clark said.

Senate Bill 409. A bill that would allow school districts to spend their contingency reserve funds passed the Senate 40-0.

Substitute Senate Bill 488. A bill that would allow all school districts to close schools without the decision being subject to a local 5-percent protest-petition election passed the Senate 34-6.

House Bill 2951. A bill that would provide up to $50,000 of matching state funds to communities that convert a closed school building in a district with enrollment of less than 200 to a community center failed to pass the House 56-66.

Other action: Taxes

Senate Bill 499. A bill that would allow the Secretary of State to charge a technology communication fee of up to $5 in addition to filing fees passed the Senate 23-17. The state budget office estimates that a $1 fee would generate about $250,000 in revenue.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, called the bill “yet another fee increase to supplement a bloated government bureaucracy.”

Senate Bill 540. A bill that would allow the Department of Revenue to participate in the “streamlined sales-tax project” passed the Senate 35-5.

The project is a multi-state voluntary agreement for uniform sales and use tax collection. It is intended to establish a system for collecting taxes on remote transactions.

Among those voting against the bill was Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, who said the bill was an attempt to impose new taxes on Internet and mail-order purchases.

Senate Bill 471, which would have imposed a local sales tax on natural gas for residential and agricultural use and given 2 percent of the tax on sales to the state government, failed to pass the Senate 14-26.

Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, called the bill a new state tax on residential gas users that reversed 20 years of sound public policy.

Other action: Crime

Senate Bill 474. A bill that would allow courts to issue restraining orders to protect stalking victims without a hearing passed the Senate 37-3.

Senate Bill 475. A bill that would extend the protection of the stalking laws to people who were in a dating relationship with the stalker passed the Senate 38-2.

Senate Bill 487. A bill that would require a prison sentence for those convicted of a fourth burglary passed the Senate 39-1.

The Senate rejected a hate crimes amendment offered by Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City. It would have increased the penalty for crimes in which the victim was selected based on race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.

Haley said Kansas is one of only 10 states that do not have a hate crimes law. He called his amendment a domestic terrorism bill and said he had supported the enhanced penalty for agricultural terrorism.

“We’re only asking for that same enhanced penalty for hate crimes,” he said.

But Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said the law already allows increased sentences for crimes motivated by hate. The amendment failed to pass by a 10-27 vote.

The Senate also rejected an animal cruelty amendment offered by Haley to the stalking bill. The amendment, based on a bill that had stalled in committee, would have made extreme cruelty to animals a felony.

Haley said 34 states have such a law. He said cruelty to animals should be a felony because serial killers often began with torturing animals.

A case from Wyandotte County showed the need for the law, Haley said. A dog was doused with gasoline, put in a plastic bag and beaten to death. The kind of person who would do that should be marked as a felon, he said.

But Vratil said misdemeanor cruelty to animals carries a longer sentence than felony cruelty to animals would.

“If this amendment is adopted, we would treat cruelty to animals more severely than cruelty to children,” he said.

The Senate rejected the amendment 23-10.

Other action: Family law

House Bill 2078. A bill that would subject parents of children caught shoplifting to civil penalties of up to $500 passed the House 82-39.

House Bill 2366. A bill that would raise the age for common-law marriage from 12 for girls and 14 for boys to 18 passed the House 120-1.

Senate Bill 486. A bill that would abolish common-law marriage passed 31-9 the Senate.

Senate Bill 173. A bill that would have required proof of fault in a divorce in which the couple had minor children failed to pass the Senate 25-15.

Other action: Consumers

House Bill 2767. A bill that that would subject telephone solicitors to penalties for calling consumers who asked to be put on a no-call list passed the House 65-53.

An amendment attached to the bill would also allow agricultural producers to sue agricultural contractors under the Consumer Protection Act, which provides for recovery of civil penalties of up to $5,000 or damages and attorney fees for unfair and deception acts.

Many of the legislators who voted against the bill said they opposed the amendment but not the no-call provision.

Senate Bill 382. A bill that would make profiteering from disaster an unconscionable act under the Consumer Protection Act passed the Senate 26-14. The bill would define a 50-percent price increase without justification as profiteering.

Substitute Senate Bill 467. A bill that would bring unsolicited commercial e-mail, or “spam,” under to the Consumer Protection Act passed the Senate 38-2.

The bill would prohibit senders from misrepresenting the origin of the message, or misrepresenting the subject of the message on the subject line. It would require them to identify the message as an advertisement, and in the case of sexually explicit material, to identify the message as an adult advertisement.

It would also require senders to give receivers a way to inform senders they don’t want any further messages.

Other action: Agriculture

House Bill 2817. A bill that would extend the time for contract harvesters to file liens from 15 to 30 days passed the House 121-0.

Senate Bill 435. A bill that would repeal the Livestock Remedy Act, which requires certain information to be on livestock remedy labels and requires individuals who sell livestock remedies to register with the Department of Agriculture and pay a $10 fee, passed the Senate 40-0.

Senate Bill 492. A bill that would repeal the law giving aliens eligible for U.S. citizenship the same rights as U.S. citizens to inherit land passed the Senate 40-0.

The bill would also repeal the law giving other aliens the right to inherit land provided in treaties between the United States and the aliens’ countries of citizenship.

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