The Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its first legislative coffee of 2020 on Saturday in a St. Catherine Hospital classroom, with area legislators looking ahead to what issues might come up in Topeka this session.
Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City; Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City; Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin; and Rep. Martin Long, R-Ulysses, participated in the event.
The group agreed that the major issues to be discussed this session will include education, medicaid expansion, the state budget, corrections and possibly property taxes and other issues.
On education, a component of the funding formula, as equitable by the Kansas Supreme Court, will sunset on July 1 and need to be reauthorized by the legislature for funding to continue.
The component involves “High Density High Risk,” which is based on the poverty level existing within a community and high-risk students as determined by free lunches in school districts.
“This particular funding stream is of great importance to Garden City, Dodge City, Liberal and all western Kansas schools," Jennings said. “If we don’t sustain it exactly what it was we put before the court, we will be back in court again and they will have the opportunity to say whether what you did or didn’t do makes a difference.”
Jennings said this will be one that makes a difference in the formula as it is about a targeted population of students in districts.
Doll said medicaid expansion could be discussed in the Senate in January.
“The Senate and governor’s plans are very close,” Doll said. “Hopefully we will address that.”
Wheeler added that Gov. Laura Kelly's plan is similar to the House plan that passed last year.
“It would be wonderful for many in Kansas, but there’s a marked difference between the governor’s plan and a newly developed plan by the Senate majority leader,” Wheeler said.
Doll said he plans to introduce two separate bills this session. The first will cover silage transport, as farmers are getting stopped by law enforcement for unsecured loads or loads that aren't covered.
“Unfortunately it’s a misdemeanor versus a citation,” Doll said. “The bill will make it clear that it's a citation — still fined the same amount of money, but this will make it clear.”
His other bill will involve property tax relief. Doll is asking to backdate it two years early to counties, from 2022 to 2020, but believes it has to benefit a majority of Kansans rather than a few.
“We had it until 2002 ... until the disastrous Brownback tax cut,” Doll said. “The last 11 months we’ve been able to have surpluses. Our government is not a bank. Leadership wants to give money back in the form of income tax, but we have to do whatever we can to relieve property taxes.”
“In 2003, Grant County had a value of $360 million,” Long said. “Today, it is down to $160 million due to the loss of oil and gas. There’s an appetite in the House to do away with the tax lid, as it hasn’t done what we wanted it to do.”
Wheeler said something needs to be done but doesn’t know if it will happen.
“If the bill has the word ‘tax’ in it, (leadership) is afraid to bring it above the line because of the way it could be amended,” Wheeler said.
On corrections issues, Jennings said there are a number of proposals coming forward — from ones addressing facility capacities to many involving front-end changes to help individuals gain services at the community level, particularly individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues.
“If we don’t address those issues,” Jennings said, “then we’re just going to have to build more prisons and that’s not a long-term viable course we should take.”
Jennings is chairman of the House corrections and juvenile justice committee.
Wheeler said he thinks the state corrections system is in crisis and in “deplorable condition.”
“I have friends who have been guards at El Dorado that just quit,” Wheeler said. “It’s just too dangerous. Many mentally ill inmates from Larned State Hospital have been moved in to multi-cell beds at El Dorado, so those security risks are exiting also.”
Doll said a different approach may need to be taken for nonviolent crimes.
“A lot of times we are creating a violent criminal (with their surroundings in a state prison). Maybe look at county jails to house some of these and bring money in to the counties," Doll said.
On separate issues, Long, who serves on the House commerce committee, said the committee is seeing a “turf war” between the Kansas Lottery and the state-owned casinos about control of sports betting. He also said slot machines are a hot topic.
“When the state signed contracts with operators of the four state-owned casinos some years ago, the contract states the state-imposed tax on slot machines is 22 percent, but for racetracks it's actually 40 percent," Long said. "The attorney general has said that if we do that (drop the percentage to 22 percent for those wanting to start tracks with slot machines) then we’d be breaking our contract with the casino operators. And most legislators agree with that.”
An audience question on broadband brought agreement from legislators that it is needed in rural Kansas, but also that there was uncertainty on how to pay for it.
Jennings said it is all about priorities with programs.
“We’re playing a three-dimensional game of chess with all the strategy,” Jennings said. “We’re not going to take money from the KDOT budget so we have to figure out how to pay for everything. It comes down to priorities.”
The legislative session begins Jan. 13.