BY VERONICA COONS
ELLINWOOD — Rep. Greg Lewis said he and fellow legislators were warned to pack plenty of clothes for their return to Topeka on May 1.
Lewis and Sen. Mary Jo Taylor attended the Ellinwood Chamber of Commerce Legislative Coffee Wednesday morning at the Ellinwood Community Hospital. They provided an update on the budget, education funding and other issues the state is facing.
Lewis said the House passed 166 bills in the 76 days that have passed during this year’s session. But prior to leaving for recess, he and his fellow representatives were warned the chances of going home early during the final veto session aren’t promising.
“I think they want to wrap this up in 90 days,” he said.
Taylor, in contrast, shared her disappointment at the slower pace of passing bills out of committee on the Senate side. She noted as a member of the Health Committee that a lot of hard work was done to bring about Medicaid expansion, and she was disappointed that the Legislature was unable to override Governor Sam Brownback’s veto by only three votes. She noted that since the announcement Tuesday of Topeka’s St. Francis Hospital’s possible closure, she was hopeful that a second try at expansion may be possible.
It was reported Tuesday in the Topeka Capital-Journal that SCL Health will do what it can to find a new owner for the hospital. But whether or not that happens, the company will walk away from the hospital in early May, citing “losses of $117 million over the previous five years, with physician clinics losing $31 million in 2016.” They pointed to the lack of Medicaid expansion in Kansas as a primary reason for the loss.
Taylor went on to explain that while many smaller hospitals may not receive a lot from Medicaid expansion compared to those in larger cities, that was not a reason not to support it.
“Our first line of defense in our rural areas are our critical access hospitals,” she said. “But if you need to be airlifted to Wichita, you’re not going to care if they got a lot of money from this.”
Tax concerns voiced
Several in attendance had questions about taxes and the state’s budget. One woman asked if sales tax is charged on items purchased via the internet. Taylor answered that yes, if the company has a brick and mortar presence in the state, it must charge sales tax. She also noted that since Amazon now has such a presence in the state, Kansas is finally getting its share of the revenue the internet giant generates.
One Ellinwood man, George Martin, voiced his opposition to the state raising money to fix its out-of-whack budget by raising sales tax. He noted that as a retiree living on an annuity, raising sales tax hurts those least able to withstand the added expenditure. He also asked what the chances are of the state lowering the tax on food. Lewis responded that he was not aware of any plans to raise sales tax, but both he and Taylor agreed that the current budgetary woes made it unlikely there would be any lowering of sales tax in the near future.
Taylor said a proposed finance bill to tax the income of limited liability corporations provided the implementation of a flat-rate income for all taxpayers, but it received only three votes in the Senate. Its negative impact on the poor and people on fixed incomes she cited as the reason.
Both Taylor and Lewis complained of the leadership’s maneuvering to slow down passage of critical bills before the recess by canceling meetings and not allowing bills to pass out of committee. Lewis speculated that doing so acted to compress the amount of work that would need to be done if the Legislature is to finish on time. He anticipates some late nights ahead.
Teacher scarcity and education funding
One woman wanted to know why, according to a recent article in the Great Bend Tribune, school administrators for Great Bend USD 428 had traveled to Michigan to recruit teachers, Taylor, the former Superintendent for USD 349 in Stafford County, responded that openings are going unfilled in schools all over Kansas because few teachers are being turned out of the state’s colleges. She has had several groups of students visit her in Topeka, and one question she always asks is what they plan to do for a career when they graduate.
“Not one of them says they want to become a teacher,” she said. When she asks why not, the reasons cited are a fear of being able to handle discipline, and the perception of low pay. Both reasons, she admitted, were valid.
Meanwhile, states like Michigan and South Dakota currently turn out an excess of teachers, so Kansas schools have been recruiting there in recent years.
Essentially, the state’s budget woes and the ongoing problems with education funding have left Kansas unable to provide raises to state workers for the past decade, making the state’s ability to provide competitive salaries to highly educated teachers impossible.
Lewis added that since 2008, the state has 1,000 fewer teachers.