Monday, February 13, 2006

All quiet on the Kansas Statehouse front?

A variety of bills like the one legalizing concealed weapons are working their way through the Kansas Legislature, but so far this session has been fairly quiet.

On the surface everything is routine, even dull. The expected clashes over wedge issues and such powder kegs as a predicted conservative attack on the judiciary haven’t materialized in any serious way yet.

Oh, there are land mines out there. Some hidden, some obvious. (Will you really feel safer knowing that your crazy neighbor down the street could be packing a gun?)

But as we head toward Feb. 25 -- the deadline for the House and Senate to vote on bills they originated -- it seems as if not much is happening. Perhaps it’s time for those of us worried about civil rights, the separation of church and state, and adequate funding of state services to relax, secure in the knowledge that we’ll be able to survive this session without anything horrible happening.

Maybe. But it’s far too early to tell.

One reason for the quiet in Topeka is that the 500-lb gorilla issue of the session – school finance – is being discussed behind closed doors. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the Republican leaders of the Legislature have been talking about how to tackle the Supreme Court’s mandate to add hundreds of million’s of dollars to the state school system.

There’s nothing unusual about their closed-door discussions, except for the fact that Republicans and Democrats are actually talking together, unlike the current fashion in Washington, D.C.

In an issue as large and difficult as this one, standard operating procedure in Topeka is for the details to be hashed out behind closed doors before a plan is run out for the rank-and-file legislators to consider. (Note how truly powerless your legislator may be if she or he is not in the leadership.) Until school finance is resolved, anything involving state spending can’t be discussed in any detail.

As far as other issues go, don’t be fooled by the official deadlines, like Feb. 25. As long as the legislative leadership agrees, the most outrageous proposals can be amended onto budget bills at the last minute. In a “gut and go,” a bill that has already been approved by both houses is stripped of its language, and an entirely new bill inserted and sent on its merry way to approval. Most often these tactics occur at 2 or 3 in the morning of the last day or so of the session.

Stay tuned. Keep paying attention. No one is truly safe until the last legislator leaving town turns out the lights in her office.

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