This Week in Topeka
February 22-26, 2021
Business, Economic Development & Local Government News from the Legislative Session
Committees continued to grind through bills – many of which have been covered in previous editions of this report - to get them ready for consideration by the full House and Senate next week. Next week both chambers will spend most of their time debating, amending, and passing legislation in advance of the March 5 “turn around” deadline.
After next week there will be more clarity on the topics that are considered priorities for this session and which issues might have to wait until next year.
This week we’re providing a brief update on a few highlights.
Unemployment Fraud – The House and Senate Commerce Committees continued their work on bills to modernize the state’s unemployment system. An audit report - click here - released Wednesday by Legislative Post Audit (LPA) estimated that of the approximately $2.6 billion paid out in federal and state unemployment aid to Kansans in 2020, an estimated $600 million or 24% may have been due to fraud.
LPA cautions that this is a preliminary estimate based on assumptions made to produce the requested report in the time allotted. They intend to fine-tune the estimate in the coming weeks and months. Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL) officials disputed the number and point to the assumptions made and LPA’s methodology as a basis for their disagreement. KDOL contends the number is closer to $300 million in combined state and federal funds. Either way, fraud is diverting critical money away from Kansans who depend on the system when they lose their jobs.
Vaccinations – The Senate Commerce Committee held a Thursday hearing on SB 213. The bill would prevent employers from taking adverse actions against employees because of their decision to receive or not receive a vaccination. Opponents have argued the bill infringes on the rights of businesses to set policies based on unique conditions within their work environment. It was argued that employers need to be able to set employment policies impacting how their employees interact with other employees, customers, and vendors. Proponents said the bill offers ultimate authority to employees to make medical decisions for themselves based on their own research and beliefs.
Property Taxes – The issue of property tax, appraisers, and the Board of Tax Appeals (BOTA) continues to be the focus of attention, particularly in the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee.
On Tuesday, Robin Marx, a Johnson County resident and experienced appraiser, was the subject of a hearing to assess his nomination by Governor Laura Kelly to serve on the BOTA. This is the second time Marx has been nominated by Kelly for this position.
As was the case last year, concerns were raised over Marx’s previous clients and his views on the controversial “dark store” appraisal theory. Senators questioned his previous involvement in property tax issues and whether he could be an impartial arbiter on BOTA. Marx and his supporters point to his 40-plus years of appraisal experience and maintain Marx’s experience would make him an asset to BOTA.
Previous editions of this legislative summary have talked about potential property tax reimbursements for businesses forced to close their doors or limit their customer capacities due to the pandemic. There has been growing consensus that the first bill to address this was overly broad. This week a revised proposal began to circulate to bring more specifics to the table for consideration.
The new proposal would allow businesses to receive tax credits to be applied against future liabilities rather than cash reimbursements. More details on this modified proposal should be publicly available next week.
State Agency Rules – Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Republican leaders introduced a constitutional amendment (HCR 5014) that would give lawmakers oversight of rules proposed by state agencies. If adopted by the legislature, voters would have the opportunity to vote on the proposed amendment at the November 2022 general election. The amendment would grant the legislature the authority to revoke or suspend agency rules and regulations.
Schools - On Thursday the Senate Education Committee took up a bill (SB 235) that would require school districts to offer full-time, in person attendance options for every K-12 student in Kansas. The bill would apply to the current school year beginning March 26 and for all subsequent school years.
Medical Marijuana – Lawmakers on the House Federal and State Affairs Committee ventured into the world of legalizing medical marijuana this week when they opened hearings on HB 2184. For many this is an emotionally charged issue that helps their loved ones cope with a variety of medical conditions. For others, it’s the first step on a slippery slope toward broader use of marijuana and creates a multitude of enforcement and legal concerns – especially in the workplace setting.
Previously Governor Kelly announced a renewed push to expand Medicaid using revenue from the sale of medical marijuana to cover expansion costs.
Emergency Declarations – SB 273 revises the Kansas Emergency Management Act (KEMA) in the wake of concerns over the ongoing COVID pandemic and was the subject of two days of hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The bill reworks KEMA and creates more checks and balances on the governor and local units of government when enacting emergency orders.
Proponents of the changes argue that KEMA was long overdue for evaluation and an overhaul. Other conferees questioned if the changes could hamper the ability of public officials to address future public health emergencies quickly and appropriately.
Under the provisions of the bill, emergency orders by the governor would require input from the attorney general and validation by a newly created legislative Joint Committee on Emergency Management. Additionally, the bill clarifies the appeal process for persons who believe they have been aggrieved by emergency orders put into place. A similar piece of legislation, HB 2416, was the subject of hearings before the House Judiciary Committee this week. The bill is similar in intent to SB 273 but differs in how proposed changes are applied in practice.