State Sen. John Doll and state Reps. John Wheeler and Russ Jennings sat before local elected officials, board members, health professionals and other community members Saturday at the year’s first Legislative Coffee, a monthly forum where southwest Kansas constituents can discuss issues with their elected representatives.
The Legislature will convene for the 2019 session on Monday, the first session under Gov.-elect Laura Kelly, who will take office on Jan. 14.
“I think it’s going to be a war,” Doll, I-Garden City, said in a separate interview after Saturday's forum. “Both the House and Senate is leaning further right than it was before.”
Doll told those in attendance that he still believed in Greg Orman, whose gubernatorial campaign he joined last year. Doll denied rumors that he was planning to retire, though said he was not sure if he would run for reelection in 2020, a far from simple task for him as an Independent — a party he has no intention of leaving.
“If I had to make the decision today, I’d say ‘No, I’m not running,’ but you don’t know what two years bring,” he said after Saturday's event.
Jennings said during the forum that the divided government — a Republican legislature and Democrat governor — would provide “a greater potential for some balance.” His concerns were with the House and Senate leadership, which he noted are nearly all from eastern Kansas. Facing those circumstances, it was important to establish good working relationships with those leaders, again, he said, for the sake of balance.
Wheeler said Kelly was reasonable and that he was not concerned about moving forward with her as governor, but was wary regarding some issues in the Legislature.
“I am candidly uncertain of what’s going to happen this year,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler and Jennings noted that some members of the Legislature supported abandoning its near-completed school finance plan, a move both opposed. Jennings said the current plan was likely relatively small changes away from meeting the Kansas Supreme Court’s standards for equity and adequacy.
Jennings said he expected the House to produce a bill that would pass court requirements “fairly early in the session” at a cost of about $90 million a year. Even with the change, he said, the state will be able to fund improvements to highways and KPERS.
The three lawmakers addressed several issues brought forward by attendees. Jennings discussed state plans to revitalize rural Kansas. Lawmakers needed to retain populations in and boost the economies of smaller communities, possibly through incentive programs and, initially, just bringing other representatives to the communities so they better understand them, he said.
At the request of Callie Dyer, executive director of LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, Jennings also updated those in attendance on a state committee he sat on regarding youth suicide in the state. He and other lawmakers had visited schools and heard stories from families who lost children to suicide to begin to better understand what could be done to help.
“In my opinion, for what it’s worth, right now, our most serious public health crisis is the rate of which teenagers are killing themselves in this state. It is the second leading cause of death of adolescents, and that is, in my mind, just tragic,” Jennings said.
He said afterward that the state may look into more access to school-based mental health services and elevating awareness of the issue among schools and students. Committee members would reach out to schools and communities to see what was working and if it could be replicated on a wider scale. The first step, he said, was asking people to talk about it.
Moving into the legislative session, Doll said he wanted to focus on taxes, school finance and Medicaid expansion. Wheeler said he hoped to prioritize highway improvements and prison reform, and Jennings is focused on school finance, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform.
Upcoming Legislative Coffees, hosted by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, will be at 10 a.m. Saturdays on Feb. 16, March 16, April 20, May 18 and June 15, all in Classroom B at St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City. They are free, open to the public and provide a full breakfast.
For more information, contact the Chamber at (620) 276-3264 or visit www.gardencitychamber.net.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.