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Originally published Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 4:35 PM

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House Commerce advances bill raising Kansas' minimum wage to match federal level

A House panel endorsed a bill Wednesday that would tie the state's minimum wage to the federal level.

Associated Press Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. —

A House panel endorsed a bill Wednesday that would tie the state's minimum wage to the federal level.

The Commerce and Labor Committee amended the bill and sent it to the full House for debate. The bill would raise the state minimum wage to $7.25 an hour on Jan. 10, 2010. The federal rate is set to increase to $7.25 on July 1.

The amendment would give the state secretary of labor the authority to set the Kansas minimum wage so it's consistent with future increases in the federal rate. Legislators said that would remove a criticism they have received for years that they aren't responsive to federal changes.

"My intent is to try to get this thing right, and frankly, make this issue go away," said Rep. Steve Brunk, a Belle Aire Republican and chairman of the committee.

Kansas adopted a minimum wage law in 1978, setting the rate at $1.60 per hour. It jumped to the present $2.65 in 1988, the lowest in the United States. Efforts to raise the rate to mirror increases in the federal rate have repeatedly failed in the Legislature over the past two decades.

Labor officials say the increase would apply to 20,000 workers or fewer in the state who are not already covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Senate has already approved raising the minimum wage. If approved by the House, negotiators from the two chambers will work on a compromise.

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DRUG TESTING: Some Republicans in the Kansas House are pushing for random drug testing for people who receive cash assistance from the state.

A bill mandating such testing has cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee and is headed to the entire chamber for debate.

The measure would affect about 14,000 people receiving help under the Temporary Assistance for Families, General Assistance, Child Care Assistance and Grandparents as Caregivers Assistance programs.

People who fail the tests and don't complete a treatment program would lose their benefits. The testing would cost $800,000 a year and start in July 2010.

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Committee Chairwoman Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, told The Topeka Capital-Journal that the state has a duty to make sure tax dollars don't finance drug habits.

But Democrats are skeptical of the proposal, and the committee's endorsement Tuesday came on a party-line vote.

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SNUFFED OUT: A bill to impose a statewide smoking ban appears to be on the sidelines for the rest of the 2009 Kansas legislative session.

The House Health and Human Services Committee took less than five minutes Wednesday to vote to table the issue until it receives more information. However, because Friday is the last day for committees to meet this year, it is unlikely the panel will take up the measure again.

The bill would ban smoking in most public places. It also prohibits smoking in bars, restaurants, workplaces and government buildings, and within 10 feet of any doorway, open window or air intake of any place where smoking is banned.

Senators passed the bill 26-13 earlier in the session.

Sen. David Wysong, a Mission Hills Republican, has been the bill's chief sponsor. He said after the committee's action that he was disappointed, but not surprised. Wysong said the momentum was building across the country and other nations to regulate smoking, as many cities and counties in Kansas have in recent years.

"This thing will get bigger and bigger. I'm proud of the Senate seeing it for what it is, a statewide health issue," Wysong said.

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FOSTER CARE: Private agencies providing foster care and other youth services want to exempt themselves from state inspections.

They've told the House Health and Human Services Committee that they already must abide by rigorous private accreditation standards. They contend the state inspections represent unnecessary duplication and could discourage some families from volunteering to take foster children.

But the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, along with some child care facilities, oppose the move, according to the Lawrence Journal-World. They argue having a second set of inspections provides more protection.

The committee began hearings Tuesday on a bill to exempt maternity centers and child care facilities from being inspected by the agency if the center or facility is accredited by one of three private groups. It took no action.

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SEAT BELTS: Transportation Secretary Deb Miller said Wednesday that Kansas is in danger of losing $11 million in federal highway funds.

She said that legislators must strengthen the state's seat belt law by June 30 to claim the one-time federal grant.

The Senate has approved the bill, but the House Transportation Committee's chairman doesn't plan to consider it.

The bill permits law enforcement officers to stop drivers for not wearing seat belts. State law now says officers must stop someone first for another infraction, such as speeding, before issuing a ticket for not buckling up.

House committee Chairman Gary Hayzlett, a Lakin Republican, wasn't swayed by the argument. He said the federal government has long used such tactics to get states to strengthen their seat belt laws.

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UNDER THE DOME: Wednesday was the 66th day of the legislative session out of 90 scheduled. ... Legislative leaders have scheduled a news conference for Thursday to discuss developments in the Kansas bioscience industry. ... Kansas' congressional delegation has announced that the Department of Homeland Security has begun taking construction bids for the $523 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to be built in Manhattan. ... House and Senate negotiators resumed talks but didn't agree on the final version of a bill allowing two coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas, and they expect to meet again Friday.

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Associated Press Writer John Hanna contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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