The Senate also debated the joint rules for 2015-2016. The joint rules include deadlines and bill guidelines for each chamber to follow. Both Houses again included the Pay Go rule that requires any amendment to a spending bill that would increase spending must have a corresponding cut to the budget being presented. This simple rule helps the Legislature keep a firm grasp on the spending levels of the state of Kansas. In the past, it was very easy for legislators who had no intent of voting for the final budget to offer amendments that would increase spending on issues that might be politically advantageous, then use those recorded votes in campaigns. Because of that, budget bills took hours to debate and it was a much more partisan process. Pay Go is a rule that builds integrity into the system.
New Appeals Court Judge
At the end of last week, Governor Brownback nominated Kathryn Gardner for a vacant position on the Kansas Court of Appeals. Ms. Gardner is nominated to replace former Justice Caleb Stegall, who was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court in December.
Remember that in 2013, the Kansas Legislature reformed the selection process for the Court of Appeals by making the process more like the federal model, where the governor appoints a candidate and then the Senate vets and then confirms the appointment in an open format where you, the citizen, can watch and be informed.
Mrs. Gardner will be the second person to go through this process and is now subject to a Senate confirmation process in the next 60 days. The Kansas Court of Appeals, with 14 judges, is very important and I look forward to taking part in this process.
Protecting Children, Teachers, and Parents
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on Senate Bill 56, which is part of a two-pronged approach to how to clarify and improve the law regarding material that would be harmful to minors.
A child who attended middle school in the SMSD, took a picture of a list posted on the back of a classroom door with her cell phone and showed it to her parents. Her father, Mark Ellis, thought at first the poster was put up by some wayward kids, but found out that it was purposely displayed by a teacher and was part of the sex education classes and curriculum. It was entitled "How people express their sexual feelings" and then listed a number of sex acts, some which were explicit. This, again, was a poster being shown in a school with 13 year olds. You can read the story on FoxNews by clicking here.
When Mark tried to get the poster removed, he was met with resistance. While the poster was eventually pulled down, it was only after an extended media firestorm and after the parent in question was brushed off a few times - initially, some school officials even defended the poster. While the right decision was ultimately made, the fact the poster was shown in the first place - and the fact it took so long to take it down - exposed a flaw in the system that allowed the controversy to happen.
As a side note, Mark Ellis is now running for the local school board and I highly recommend those living in the SM North Area to consider his candidacy.
In response, last year, we introduced two pieces of legislation to look into this matter. One would require that parents "opt in" to sex education rather than the current policy of "opting out". A second, which is SB 56, would address the "affirmative defense" law that exempts schools and their employees, like teachers, from any penalties if they distributed materials harmful to minors. The definition for "harmful to minors" is in the bill and it contains sexually graphic terminology so I will not be publishing it in any of my newsletters.
On the latter, after researching Kansas law, I found that people who work within public establishments and distributed materials harmful to minors couldn't be prosecuted at all, no matter how much forethought was put into the act, or how damaging it would be to a child. Only those who are part of a commercial establishment and "knowingly" distribute the material harmful to minors carry that risk. Even if public establishments were to be added to the law, there is an "affirmative defense" that sets a very high bar protecting university professors and K-12 school teachers.
Therefore, last year I proposed legislation that would add public establishments and change the word "knowingly" to "recklessly," (because that's the term used in our obscenity statute). I also removed the affirmative defense for K-12 teachers because the definition of "harmful to minors" in the law should certainly not allow that kind of material distributed to minors in any case (see page 2, lines 14-31).
The bill passed out of committee last year by near unanimous votes, but it did not receive a vote on the Senate floor so it didn't progress through the legislative process. The bill was most likely stopped because the KNEA and KASB were able to flood Senators' email inboxes saying that the bill would cause teachers to be thrown in jail. I said I would try again this year.
I have proposed the legislation again, this time keeping the word "knowingly" in the bill because I was told that was the hang-up and why the bill was stopped.
Now, some left wing groups, including Planned Parenthood, have decided to create strawman arguments and spread outright falsehoods that the law would allow the prosecution of teachers who have their students read Huckleberry Finn! However, as the bill states, a reasonable person would have to find the material lacks any serious literary, educational, artistic or scientific value, etc., so this is simply not true. Sadly, despite the blatant disregard for the facts in such a claim, a couple media outlets have seized upon that sensationalism. Others, though, have been fair.
The reality is that what this bill will do will be to add an extra layer of protection in our laws for teachers who want to be cautious about potentially harmful material, parents who want to shield their children from said material until an appropriate age, and most importantly, the children themselves who deserve a system in place that will protect them - that is the responsibility of school administration, the local school board, but also legislators who are charged with crafting and amending laws that govern material harmful to minors.
In the end, parents must have choices made available to them prior to the material being shown, and then there must be accountability when poor, indefensible decisions are made that can have a lasting negative impact on children that clearly cross the line of what is appropriate. Like with all legislation, SB 56 will be amended to clearly achieve the goal to improve the law and protect children, without creating any unintended consequences. However, make no mistake -- it is important legislation that will help protect not only children, but teachers who don't want to be in a position of having to post said material.
I appreciate all who have weighed in on behalf of this effort, both in e-mails and in social media. Your efforts must continue so this legislation receives a vote on the Senate floor.