Chamber holds virtual legislative coffee

In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the state’s stay-at-home order and limit on gatherings to less than 10 people, the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce held its first virtual legislative coffee on Saturday morning.

Approximately 95 individuals attended the event, streamed on Zoom and Facebook Live, as local legislators Sen. John Doll (I-Garden City), Rep. Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) and Rep. John Wheeler (R-Garden City) discussed the pandemic, with a majority of the time spent talking about reopening the state.

“We’re in difficult times,” Doll said. “COVID-19 is something we need to respect. We don’t need to fear it ... it just deserves respect.”

The trio of legislators agreed that the economic impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, not only for businesses of all sizes that have shut down and hope to reopen but also the state with lost revenue.

“I’m very concerned about the hit the state is taking right now,” Wheeler said. “Our business revenue is going to be gone — because our businesses are closed. We either will have to raise taxes or make cuts.”

Jennings said there won’t be anyone who isn’t touched economically by the current crisis. In the already depressed farm economy, Jennings said “this is just one more kick in the teeth to them,” referring to the cattle market and price disparity between cost of growing animals in the feedlots and the price packers are paying versus the price they receive.

All the legislators said they were not sure if the session would be over or if they would be called back to finish the session.

“An interesting thing is if we can hold a legislature in a forum like this (virtual), Wheeler said. “ Everyone says no as the Kansas Constitution says that all legislative sessions must be held in the state capital. That’s an “A” instead of an “O” in capital. To me that means in the city of Topeka.”

Jennings said the emergency declaration cannot be allowed to expire.

“If so, the governor loses all authority for emergency orders and probably more important is the potential of losing federal assistance to address the issues we’re going to face,” he said. “Any subsequent aid could be out of reach for the state.”

All believe plans need to start being devised to reopen the state — gradually — and involve local officials as to when reopening should happen.

Doll said he has contacted the governor’s office and suggested a committee made up of the executive branch plus three members of the House and three from the Senate.

“Reopening is a very local issue,” Doll said. “It’s different in Johnson County verses Morton County. Perhaps the state gives basic guidelines, but then it comes down to local officials deciding what’s best for their people and businesses. I think that geographical selection would be very important.”

The trio agree there is no one-size-fits-all to the situation from one end of the state to the other.

Jennings said the ability to do testing is a vital part of reopening.

“All the experts are saying testing is important, and Kansas ranks 50th in terms of having sufficient testing supplies,” Jennings said. “Also once vaccinations are widely available and people become immunized to this disease, things will get freer. It’s going to take some time and a whole lot of personal responsibility and business responsibility to manage things in a way that minimizes unnecessary exposure.”

Wheeler concurred about the local government playing a large role in the reopening.

“Let them (county commissions) make a plan and submit it to the governor for approval,” Wheeler said. “I really believe that if we think that local people know what’s best for our localities, let’s practice it here as well.”

An audience member asked if Medicaid expansion would be passed this session.

The answer by all three was no — that it probably would not even be discussed.

“There’s no chance right now of that being passed,” Doll said. “If we go back, and that’s a big if, we’re only going to go back ... dealing with the budget.”

Wheeler added that it’s sad that it won’t be as “this is when we really need it.”

“Medicaid expansion is one of those issues that has been held — and held hostage — until the last minute,” Jennings said. “Those are for political leverage to gain votes on other matters in order to get those passed, and consequentially, very little policy has been passed.”

Doll talked about the importance for broadband now, more than ever, through western Kansas as school districts have switched to online learning.

Jennings concurred. “They (school districts) flipped the switch one day to go from a school-based classroom model to a technology model and really accomplished that in about a week’s time. ... It’s been pretty spectacular.”

All the legislators agreed this is a different world now, where everyone will wait to see if the “new normal” will be better or worse.