Three southwest Kansas lawmakers reviewed work done and what stood in the way of certain political milestones, like passing Medicaid expansion, on Saturday morning at the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce’s final Legislative Coffee of the year.
Sen. John Doll, I-Garden City; Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City; and Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, were all present for the Chamber’s monthly public forum, where local constituents listen to and ask questions of their elected officials at St. Catherine Hospital. The forums will begin again in January 2020.
All three lawmakers mentioned the Legislature's failure to pass Medicaid expansion as a disappointment. But Jennings also shifted the conversation to what was accomplished during the session, which ended about 12 days earlier than planned.
“We didn’t expand Medicaid again. The governor never got a bill signed, and you would think that the legislative session was a complete failure because of that one bill not passed … If I were to give the session a grade, I would give it slightly above a ‘B’ grade,” Jennings said.
He said representatives got the House in order fiscally, met obligations for the retirement system and drafted a public education formula that would hopefully satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court and clear up an issue that has dominated legislative sessions for years.
They adopted an alternative health care plan for the Farm Bureau, formed a commission to research criminal justice reform, increased the reimbursement rate for nursing homes and increased funding for the Kansas Department of Transportation, he said. They restored funding for the Kansas Board of Regents, gave a pay increase to state employees, not including legislators or high-level elected officials, and dedicated $36 million to the state Department of Corrections for guard salary increases.
Doll and Wheeler were less optimistic. Doll said his hair and beard still grew long as part of a now lengthy protest against Gov. Laura Kelly not appointing western Kansas residents to state secretary positions.
Doll argued that state ad valorem funds should be distributed equally to all Kansas counties, giving each county about $2 million. The move could significantly help develop rural counties and give citizens ample property tax relief, he said. Jennings said the money could also help rural hospitals, which would also benefit significantly from Medicaid expansion. Doll said he voted no on the Senate budget because it did not include Medicaid expansion.
Wheeler, as he has said at past Legislative Coffees, pointed to issues with House leadership, which kept many “good” bills from reaching the floor for a vote and spent days gaveling in and out without conducting business.
“There are dozens and dozens and dozens of similarly situated bills that never got addressed. For that reason, I cannot give this session a ‘B,’ ” Wheeler said.
Beyond that, he and Doll referenced “arm-twisting” from their more conservative colleagues, who used legislation regarding Finney County as leverage to force Doll and Wheeler to support policies they were against — the House’s budget in Wheeler’s case and tax legislation in Doll’s.
For months, Finney County has been seeking retroactive legislative authorization for a sales tax increase passed without state approval due to an oversight in 2017. If denied, money already collected and spent due to the increase, meant for several Garden City and Finney County projects, could hang in the balance. Conservatives tied the authorization to a bill they knew Kelly would approve and one they knew she would veto, and would progress the one she would approve if Wheeler voted in favor of the budget, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he voted for the budget even though he was against it for his community. He said the move and other political maneuvering practiced throughout the session was “one of the most childish things I’ve ever witnessed.”
This and past years, large state legislative decisions have come down to a handful of votes, if not one vote, Doll said. In a political climate where there are “two Republican parties,” one leaning conservative and the other moderate, voting for the right candidate matters, he said.
Doll said if he runs again, it will likely be for one more term. Whether he throws his hat in the ring or not depends on if he believes the candidates he would run against are fighting for a political party or for their constituents.
“When you are considering your vote and you are voting for a candidate, is this candidate going to stand up for you? Or is this candidate going to stand up for the Republican party, the conservatives or the moderates? What’s this candidate going to do? … ” Doll said. “When you’re considering candidates, make sure you just don’t look at a letter. You look at what that candidate is going to do for you.”
About 60 percent of local leadership positions are up for election this fall. Those interested in filing can pick up packets at the Finney County Election Office, 311 N. Ninth St. All packets must be returned to the office by noon on Monday, June 3. There is a $20 filing fee for all offices and an additional $50 fee for the Garden City Commission.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.