The new year brings new leadership in Kansas, but many of the same nagging issues will bedevil the state.
In significant ways, state government’s situation has improved from a year ago. Kansas has more people working and has stabilized its finances.
But pressure to increase spending substantially has already started, and it will grow once the Legislature begins its 2019 work.
Here are some of the top issues and their accompanying sticking points.
Liberal and conservative forces will be pushing different agendas on education. While the state’s new Democratic governor has promised more funding for K-12 schools, Republican leaders in the Legislature are signaling that they want to again make cuts.
The push for more money is an effort to comply with the state Supreme Court ruling regarding what constitutes a constitutionally required level of funding. Lawmakers in 2018 agreed to a multi-year plan to add hundreds of millions to the budget. The question now facing the state is whether to stick to the plan, add even more money or backtrack and make cuts.
Rather than comply with the court’s ruling, some Republicans want to adopt a constitutional amendment that strips Kansans of their right to challenge legislative decisions on education funding. That might curtail court challenges, but it would likely doom many rural and western Kansas schools. State government is increasingly dominated by lawmakers from around Wichita and Kansas City; they won’t be putting rural and western Kansas’ interests above their own.
Kansas and its children would benefit if lawmakers would stay on course to add funding as planned, and they also should study whether it’s feasible to shift money from building funds and other places to meet the standard set by the Supreme Court. Lawmakers need to recognize that the state has other needs, including restoring cuts made to higher education.
Sufficient funding for higher education is vital to the state’s ability to attract new business and to grow existing businesses.
For most of the last decade, public universities have suffered almost yearly cuts, and tuition costs have continued to rise. The connection between a well educated workforce and good-paying jobs is clear.
Vocational programs and community colleges should be supported as well.
The best strategy for boosting the quality of jobs available in Kansas will be to boost the number of college graduates we can attract and keep in the state.
A look at the numbers shows Kansas hasn’t earned any bragging rights for creating jobs for its workers. From October 2008 to October 2018, the state added fewer than 5,000 jobs, according to data from the Department of Labor. And the labor force — people who are working or are looking for work — shrunk by more than 20,000 during that same period.
That said, progress has been made over the past year to 18 months, with the state reporting the addition of more than 17,000 private sector jobs between October 2017 and October 2018.
State economic policies have a limited role in job creation. Trends and activity in national and global economies are much bigger drivers. But smart policies that help grow good-paying jobs can help more Kansans be self-sufficient and productive citizens.
The big question is whether Kansas will expand Medicaid, as 37 states have done.
A number of studies link states’ refusal to expand Medicaid to increases in the number of Americans without insurance. Other studies link the refusal to expand Medicaid to the failure of hospitals, especially in small towns.
Rural and small hospitals face growing pressures unrelated to Medicaid, such as costly technology and the continuous move toward more specialization. Medicaid expansion isn’t going to save all the hospitals at risk. But expanding the number of low-income families who qualify for Medicaid could help.
Many states with Republican leaders – Ohio, Arizona and Iowa, for example –made Medicaid expansion part of the framework they used to support a viable network of health care in their states
Currently, the federal government picks up most of the costs for Medicaid expansion. But costs could skyrocket for states with expanded programs if Republicans succeed in killing off the ACA.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.