Five southwest Kansas legislators updated Garden City on local issues and state prisons, among other topics, at Saturday’s Legislative Coffee at St. Catherine Hospital.

State Sen. John Doll (I-Garden City), and Reps. Russ Jennings (R-Lakin), John Wheeler (R-Garden City), Martin Long (R-Ulysses) and Leonard Mastroni (R-LaCrosse) spoke at the session, hosted by the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Doll started off the session with an update on Senate Bill 2033, which, if passed, will give authorization after the fact to a sales tax Finney County began collecting last year. Doll said he thinks the bill, now in Senate committee, will pass if it makes it to the Senate floor.

Due to an oversight, Finney County put the 0.3-cent sales tax increase, which will pay for improvements to Jennie Barker Road, projects at Lee Richardson Zoo, construction of a new gun range and a new fire station, on a local ballot in November 2017 without first getting for legislative authorization as required by state law. Local voters passed the sales-tax increase.

The bill looks to correct the mistake after the fact so the sales-tax increase and project schedules may continue as planned.

Long said he expected the bill to pass quickly and thinks state authorization for a local tax is overreaching.

Wheeler and Jennings discussed state prisons, with Wheeler pointing to riots in Larned and El Dorado's prisons and facilities in poor condition, and Jennings talked about prisons being overcrowded.

State prisons are filled up to 103 percent capacity, Jennings said, which may be helped by changes to sentences for drug offenders. Sending non-violent, low-risk drug offenders to treatment centers instead of state penitentiaries would be cheaper and “more effective in terms of changing behavior,” he said.

The prisons are also stretched thin from a staffing perspective, Jennings said. He said one-quarter of authorized corrections officer positions are vacant.

“We have more inmates than we do space for the inmates that we have, and that’s not a condition. It contributes to the violence that we’ve seen go on in the past 18 months within our prisons and creates instability and a dangerous atmosphere for prison staff,” Jennings said.

The lawmakers discussed their support for the expansion of Medicaid, an effort that could save struggling rural hospitals.

Jennings also talked about regulations being considered for wind turbines that would keep them away from property lines and residences, and by extension away from highly populated areas.

The lawmakers also said they encourage transparency in the Legislature, and encouraged those in attendance to follow legislative sessions through committee meeting recordings on the state legislature website.

While taking questions from the public, Garden City resident Zach Worf asked legislators for their response to the Garden City Community College Board of Trustees’ recent decision to suspend public comment until further notice. Doll and Wheeler stood to answer, ultimately saying they would let the board and the college make their own decisions.

But, as a former prosecutor, Wheeler remarked: “I like transparency. I like it in every place we can find it.”

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