A difficult year for Democrats in Kansas, according to legislator
by Mary Rupert
State legislators described their frustrations with the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature at today’s Wyandotte County Third Saturday Democratic Breakfast.
State Sen. Pat Pettey, D-6th Dist., reported that with a small number of Democrats in the Legislature, there isn’t as much bipartisan work going on currently as there was in the 1990s – not as much “talk across the aisle.”
She said those who are in power believe that they were elected to carry out conservative legislation. Some of these areas they have focused on include fewer rights for labor, looser laws concerning carrying guns, and more politicizing of formerly nonpartisan municipal and school elections.
“I can’t stress to you what an onslaught there is against public education,” Sen. Pettey, a retired teacher, said. She added that the majority goal seems to be “to gut KNEA (Kansas National Education Association).”
This year, there is a bill proposed that would mandate fingerprinting of teachers every five years because “fingerprints change,” according to the bill’s proponents. Currently they are fingerprinted once, when they are licensed.
Sen. Pettey offered an amendment that was not accepted to take away the five-year renewal. She said only two other professions had to have fingerprint renewals under Kansas law, and one was those working with hazardous materials. She added the state already has a contract with a state law enforcement agency to provide information back to school districts, and that school districts are notified immediately through this contract about employees who commit a crime.
When her student pages sat in on this committee discussion, she said they didn’t think it made sense to spend $50 to have teachers re-fingerprinted when they already are fingerprinted.
Another strange bill this year would not allow people with degrees to use their titles, such as “professor,” or their degree, in certain circumstances, she said. They’ve worked hard, improved themselves, have a doctorate, have more expertise in an area than someone else, and there’s no reason to undervalue them, she said.
While there are a lot of bills introduced that are aimed at teachers, Sen. Pettey said they are 40 days out of 90 into the legislative session and she has yet to see a bill on kindergarten to 12th grade education funding. The state budget is $800,000 below zero for 2015 currently, she said.
The Senate Education Committee has been taken totally out of this school finance discussion so far, she said.
Rep. Val Winn, D-34th Dist., the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said the House Education budget passed a bill out of committee Friday with three of the members including Rep. Winn not signing the recommendation. The bill had some numbers for finance, but did not have the block grant language, and that is not being discussed in the House Education Committee – it is being discussed somewhere else in “hidden places,” she said. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to talk about the block grant component on Monday, and it is expected to be less than current funding, Rep. Winn said.
Sen. Pettey said she is seeing some legislative trends this year, such as taking away local control from local governments.
A bill that would change school and municipal elections from spring to fall, and make them partisan elections was one example of that, according to Sen. Pettey. Local governments and school boards across the state have said they want to keep elections in the spring, as it fits in with their calendar and budgeting cycle, she said.
Currently, the elections for school boards, city and county government are nonpartisan, but a bill in the Legislature would list the candidates’ parties on the ballots.
“It’s disconcerting every single day,” Sen. Pettey said about the conservative push on changing laws and education bills.
There is currently an effort to allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit and without any training, she said.
One of the bills heard this week was a change that would allow a worker of, for example, the Board of Public Utilities to carry a concealed weapon while going out on the job to various work sites in the community, such as checking a water main or working on streets, Sen. Pettey said. The employers would not have the power to tell them they couldn’t carry a gun.
Sen. Pettey said in committee, an explanation one senator gave to another senator was that the employer was not providing for the workers, and said, “well, when they have to go to these low-economic, poor areas of their community.” She said unfortunately some people have a negative image of Wyandotte County, even though its image has improved in recent years. “That doesn’t mean because you live in one part of our community it’s that much safer than in other parts,” she said.
Scott Mackey, immediate past chair of the Wyandotte County Democratic Party, asked, “Did I get this right – that you have to provide their fingerprints every five years for teachers but you don’t have to provide your fingerprints to buy a gun? Are we in the land of topsy-turvy?”
Norm Scott, the current chair of the Wyandotte County Democratic Party, said he is working on an effort to get more people registered to vote and to get out the vote.
One of the craziest bills this year in the Legislature, Sen. Pettey said, involves foster care. It would give more money to foster parents who are from a two-parent family, who are a woman and a man, who don’t drink, don’t smoke, only have sex in their own home and nowhere else, and are part of a group that meets on a weekly basis, such as a church group. There would be special training and these persons would be paid at a higher level to be foster parents, she said. They could choose to home school their children and the state would have to pay them based on the base state aid and weighting – making it a voucher bill, she said.
“We’re strapped for funds, every month the revenue is down,” she said, “and this bill, you want to know the price tag? $26 million.”
Sen. Pettey said even though the system has been working well, there is also legislation proposed to change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are selected, an effort to do away with judicial selection by a commission mostly made up of attorneys. One of the proposals would replace this process with a governor’s appointment. In the Kansas high courts, judges have been selected by merit through a nominating commission in the past. The Legislature already has changed the Kansas Court of Appeals judge selection to a governor’s appointment in 2013.
She said the goal of changing the judicial selection process is that the governor and those in power want judges to vote the way they want them to vote, not to be independent.
“It’s not good for us citizens, it’s not good for government,” Sen. Pettey said.
The Democratic event on Saturday also included an opportunity for candidates to speak. Only Democratic candidates could speak at the event. The primary election is March 3. The breakfast was held at a meeting room at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
Mackey pointed out that at the national level, a prominent Republican recently accused President Obama of not loving America. Mackey held a show of hands at the meeting, then said, “We do love America, and that’s unanimous.”