Richard Schenck with Hutchinson Regional Healthcare System, the sponsor of the Great Bend legislative coffee, introduced Rep. Tori Arnberger, Great Bend, and Sen Mary Jo Taylor, Stafford, to the public who came for an update on what has been happening at the state capitol since the last coffee in February. Both freshmen legislators, they provided a fresh perspective on the legislative process, now partway through their first session of their first term.
Schenck also took the opportunity to honor former Great Bend Mayor Robert Parrish, who passed away the week prior, with a moment of silence. Parrish had been a regular attendee of legislative forums, often seated at the front of the room, and always asked question and provided commentary on the issues discussed.
“We used to have these forums at the Oil and Gas Museum, and more than once Bob provided a lot level of humor to legislative forums of the past,” he said.
Arnberger and Taylor started out with opening statements about progress being made in both the House and the Senate on key issues including the state budget, education funding, Medicaid expansion, and the controversial conceal carry law that will allow guns to be carried on college campuses starting in July.
Taylor started, noting that while legislators in the Senate have been working hard, she is frustrated at the lack of action being taken compared to the House.
She commented on the recent passage and veto of the House budget bill. She was happy to see that it was passed in both houses, and then when it went to the Governor. It sat there, and she said they were hopeful he would simply not sign it and allow it to go into law. But, instead, he vetoed it at a Kansas Chamber of Commerce meeting. She was discouraged the Senate wasn’t able to override the veto.
“This wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was something to start with,” she said. It could have been tweaked and amended, and we would have been that much further along to having a budget plan for the coming year. But we’re not.”
Last week was “turnaround time,” she said. That means all the bills the Senate plans to work on should have been finished and sent over to the House, and visa versa, to begin considering starting the next week.
She explained that while there are several bills to be worked on. Every day, when they arrive at the chambers, and they look at a sheet of paper there listing all the bills that need to be considered on the Senate floor.
“There’s a big, bold line, and if there is anything that is going to be considered that day, it is placed above that line, thus the term “above the line,” she said. The President of the Senate determines what will be put above the line. This week, she said, only one bill was put above the line.
“A big part of my frustration is there are a lot of things that need to be done, but that’s the way it is,” she added.
Noting that there was a school finance decision listed this week, and that school finance consumes about 50 percent of the state’s budget, Taylor said she feels fortunate to be an educator at this particular time and place.
“I don’t have to go back to school finance 101,” she said. “I’m living it, still, until this summer. The court found that 25 percent of students aren’t adequately served, such as people with special needs, disabled, poor, or non-English speakers. The court didn’t put a price tag on what finance should be, so that’s what before us now with school finance.”
She is not in favor of leadership’s position that schools should be cut by two percent. But there are still four months left in the fiscal year, and the state is still in the red, so figuring out where the money is to come from continues to be the unsolved problem. One possibility offered up is to take a loan from the unclaimed property fund, which would be paid back in the future with interest. She also noted that the KDOT fund is no longer flush enough to sweep money from.
“I don’t mean to be Mrs. Doom and Gloom, and I am committed to being in Topeka and doing the very best that I can, but with the class of freshmen the voters of Kansas sent to the House and Senate with an appetite to work on these problems, we’ve already had people tell us we can’t expect to be reelected if we vote our conscious on these problems,” she said.
“My comment back to them is, frankly, I don’t care. Most people say they just sent us there to fix it. Figure out a way to fix it, so reelection is not an end goal. The goal is to be a Kansan and do our best to get ourselves through this, which is not going to happen in a year, or five years. It’s going to have to be a long-term buckling down and trying to recover from what we’ve been through.”
Since the House had a week off after turnaround, Arnberger visited elementary schools in her home district. With high school students, she led a debate over a bill being debated in the House concerning outlawing driving while talking on cell phones. She spent time with school staff, discussed school finance with USD 428 Interim Superintendent Khris Thexton, and learned about the backpack nutrition program. She also met with Great Bend Mayor Mike Allison, City Manager Howard Partington, and Jan Peterson with the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development, and learned about current projects happening in the city, and took a driving tour of the city which she said was eye opening.
In the House, there are four bills being worked on. School finance is one of those. She shared some of the options presented, and she noted that she is uncertain about proposed statewide health insurance for teachers. So far, it’s a dead bill, she said, but there is concern it could be tacked onto a new school finance bill.
She sits on the House Budget Committee, and noted that even though there have been several hearings, little action is being taken. Instead, they are going back to hold additional hearings and gathering more information.
She touched on the proposal to close the budget gap by taking a loan from the unclaimed property fund, calling it essentially a “payday loan.”
“They figure, the state never pays anything back, so maybe they’ll just forget about it,” she said, which produced a reaction from the gathering. “That’s basically what we’re dealing with.”
She has sent out letters to her constituents letting them know how to check if they have unclaimed property, but noted the difficulty getting the word out to everyone because people move, and she doesn’t have forwarding addresses for everyone.
Commenting on the budget gap, as of now, the state is $280 million in the hole, from the $350 million reported a month ago. And while that sounds positive, Arnberger shed light on how that figure was arrived at.
“They took the estimates, and they lowered them a little bit, so it looks like this LLC plan is working, but in reality, we just lowered our expectations,” she said.
Then the floor was opened to the public. Taylor fielded a question from one man who asked if there was any solution in sight for the current state budget hole. He noted Rise Up Kansas had a plan that was closest. Taylor said that in order to close the gap for school finance was not something that would be dealt with in a year. In fact, she said, the Senate only Thursday appointed a school finance task force.
“Some of us are really pushing it. WE don’t need to be here until July, we need to get to work so how can I get you some information to get this done sooner,” she said. “That’s the role I’m playing as a freshman, at least right now.”
One woman, identifying herself as a Dominican Sister of Peace, asked on behalf of a person from Lawrence, to address the campus conceal and carry law. Arnberger fielded the question, noting that she is an advocate of gun rights. Stadiums at state campuses are the two places legislators are not in favor of guns, and those places have metal detectors. Those are the only real exceptions, she said.
“As of right now, they are taking that bill and breaking exceptions off of it piece by piece,” she said. “To be quite honest, I don’t see it coming out of committee, because the chairman of that committee is very pro gun, and he’s just going to let it sit there.”
Only one gun bill has been voted on so far, Arnberger said, and the vote was tied 11 to 11, and the chairman decided not to vote, so the bill died. That was to not allow guns at K.U. Med.
Other questions concerned variation on the previously vetoed tax plan, expansion of Medicaid, and rumors that Governor Sam Brownback may accept a position with the Trump administration as an ambassador to Italy.
The feeling in Topeka is that the Governor will likely accept the position, but because it could take time for the appointment to be approved, he will likely remain in office in Kansas until the end of the session. If he does accept the position, the Lt. Governor would take his position, and both Taylor and Arnberger are uncertain where he stands on various issues. However, he too, has been offered a position with the Trump administration, and may leave as soon as August. This would mean yet another shuffling of the deck, and this uncertainty has raised concerns, Arnberger said.