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Legislative session getting down to the end

Friday marked the deadline for all committee work of the 2014 legislative session. The Senate consolidated a majority of the week's floor debate to Tuesday, allowing committees ample time to finish their work before Friday's deadline. We worked 25 bills Tuesday, all making it out of the chamber except for one -- SB 320 which concerns the Medical Advisory Council of the Board of Emergency Medical Services. If passed, the bill would have authorized the board to issue subpoenas and investigate violations. The majority of members were concerned with expanding the board's authority beyond what is limited by statue.

The next stage of session mainly is reserved for the House and Senate to meet in conference committees. This is the process by which differences in bills are discussed and negotiated. Each chamber presents their bill and position along with what they like and don't like about the other chamber's bill. The top three members of each committee represent their respective chamber's position in the negotiations. When both sides believe they have an equitable agreement, they submit their report back to their respective chambers and each body votes on the report. If it passes both chambers, it then is submitted to the governor for his signature or veto. If either house rejects the agreement, they go back to conference and resume the negotiation process. The conference committee process is followed for each bill with any differences from what the other chamber passed.

In the final two weeks of the regular session, focus will turn entirely to floor debate and conference committees. After April 4, the Legislature will break on first adjournment. We will return to our districts for the majority of April to visit with you on the key issues of the legislative session. Then we will return in May to consider any bills that were vetoed by the governor and finish any lingering discussions on the education budget, if necessary.

Mortgage registration fee

In what was anticipated to be a lengthy debate on the floor this week, the Senate passed a bill which will phase out the mortgage registration fee. Substitute Senate Bill 298, during the next five years, slowly will phase out a tax imposed on home-buyers using a loan to purchase property. The tax is paid at the rate of 26 cents per $100 of the value of mortgages received and filed by county register of deeds. In addition to paying the mortgage tax, buyers must pay various document recording fees to the county register of deeds to offset costs of recording the deed, mortgage and other real estate documents. The mortgage tax is burdensome and does not offset the cost of any services or benefits provided to the buyer or county, but more importantly, it's an unfair tax.

Most simply, the bill penalizes those who have the ability to purchase a home with cash, or through a farm credit organization. In fact, some have been known to refer to this existing practice as "the poor man's tax" because of its unequal effect on home-buyers in different financial situations. In order to even the playing field, the law would need to be changed to affect all home-buyers, or simply eliminate the tax. Our choice was to eliminate the tax.

Originally, the bill wiped out the tax within a year of becoming law, but after testimony from many rural county officials who were concerned with the effect on their office operations, the authors of the bill struck a compromise to phase the tax out during the next five years. During floor debate, an amendment was adopted to split the fee between the county treasurers and the county registers of deeds. The amendment was offered to offset cost endured by the country treasurers who use resources to collect the filing fees on behalf of the registers of deeds. Because of these adjustments, many of the smaller counties that rely on the tax to operate these offices actually will generate more money now as a result of the compromise.

Background checks for teachers

The Legislature passed a bill on a vote of 30-4 requiring local school districts to conduct finger-printing and background checks for teachers who recently have been hired or seeking to renew their teaching license. The background checks would be conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The bill also would require school districts to develop drug screening for teachers. Under a provision in the bill, districts would need to provide educational programs for employees testing positive for drug and alcohol issues.

During floor debate, an amendment was adopted outlining penalties for legislators testing positive for drug use. As you'll recall from last year, the Legislature passed a measure that would require drug testing for legislators based on reasonable suspicion. The bill, however, did not clearly define repercussions for a legislator upon failing a drug test. The amendment detailed a legislator who fails a drug test would have their legislative pay and expenses suspended until they attended a drug rehab program. If they failed a second drug test, pay and expenses would be suspended for a year, and a third time their compensation would be cut permanently. The amendment passed unanimously.

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, represents the 40th District.

ralph.ostmeyer@senate.ks.gov