State legislators representing multiple area districts offered constituents an update at the midway point of this year’s State Legislative session in Topeka in a Virtual Legislative Coffee hosted by the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce Saturday morning.
Legislators who participated included District 33 Sen. Alicia Straub (R-Ellinwood); District 109 Rep. Troy Waymaster (R-Bunker Hill); Dist. 112 Rep. Tory Arnberger (R-Great Bend); and Dist. 113 Rep. Brett Fairchild (R-St. John). Barton Community College Trustee Mike Johnson moderated the forum.
Fairchild said the House and Senate are working on reforms to the Kansas Emergency Management Act, which seeks to outline the powers granted to the executive branch in times of emergency.
He said reforms to the bill seek to address concerns among legislators that Gov. Laura Kelly overreached her constitutional authority in issuing executive orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeks to limit those powers.
Waymaster, who serves as Chairperson of the House Appropriations Committee, said in going through the budget process, described the state of Kansas as “sitting in a very healthy financial position” after exceeding revenue estimates for all months but one in 2020.
One question the legislators addressed was how the legislature was responding to costs incurred by municipal utility providers and passed on to consumers in response to a February cold weather emergency which led to rolling blackouts due to increased energy usage and a drastic decrease in energy supply.
In response, the Legislature passed a bill, with Straub as the only dissenting vote in either chamber, that would allow for the state to use idle budget funds to provide low interest loans to municipal utilities to help mitigate increased energy production costs incurred during the February cold snap. Straub said she voted against the bill because she feels with the bill, consumers are being unfairly penalized through drastic utility bill increases.
She expressed concern over the rushed nature of the bill, especially given the short-term nature of the emergency. The responsibility, she said, should be on the gas companies and municipalities to negotiate so consumers do not bear the brunt of the increased costs through higher utility bills.
Waymaster, however, felt the state needed to act in response to sharp price increases driven by a production level that was not nearly enough to meet the sudden increase in energy demand.
“Setting up this loan program for the municipalities in regards to the utility costs, was a way for us to, in a way, buffer those increased costs,” he said.
Legislators also addressed questions about the state’s response to a spike in fraudulent unemployment claims following pandemic-induced business shutdowns last year.
Waymaster said a legislative post audit estimated fraudulent unemployment claims cost the state around $600 million. Much of this, he noted, likely was from outside the United States, and will not be able to be prosecuted or funds recovered due to jurisdictional issues, though the State Attorney General’s Office is looking into fraudulent claims that may have been filed from within the United States.
The Legislature has sought through multiple bills to address the issue.
The legislators expressed frustration over what they said are an overwhelming number of their constituents who have been either been denied claims or have been unable to get through to the Kansas Department of Labor in trying submit legitimate unemployment claims, primarily due to failures in the system leading to the payout of so many fraudulent claims.
“It’s very unfortunate that we paid out all these fraudulent claims and we have legitimate Kansans who have unemployment claims that are legitimate, who can’t even get in contact with the Department of Labor,” Waymaster said.
Much of the responsibility, they felt, falls to the KDOL, and Gov. Kelly’s office, who they said failed to properly address shortcomings in an aging unemployment filing system that was not properly secured against, and was susceptible to, cyberattacks.
Though they said the KDOL is seeking to address the problem through measures such as additional call staffing, and additional money has been set aside for system upgrades which are now forthcoming, they feel more needs to be done to ensure that legitimate unemployment claims are able to be paid.
One hope, Waymaster said, is to possibly direct federal money from the most recent COVID-19 stimulus bill into building up the state’s depleted Unemployment Insurance Fund, and perhaps using some of the money to upgrade the state’s unemployment system. However, he indicated much of the directives from the federal government as to how the forthcoming funds can be spent are still unknown, so it is unknown whether those funds will be able to be used to help fix the state’s unemployment system.
Legislators discussed Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic legislation currently being discussed in both the House and the Senate.
Arnberger said with many studies being done regarding the importance addressing mental health challenges faced by many Kansans, addressing the topic though legislation has been a high priority for lawmakers.
The House is currently working on a bill to establish a process for funding and certification of community behavioral health clinics through the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services. Arnberger said the legislation is still under discussion, however, due to challenges in determining how provisions set forth in the bill will be funded.
Another hot button topic the legislators discussed was the issue of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes in the state of Kansas.
Arnberger, who serves on the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, stated there is currently an extensive bill on the issue before the Kansas House of Representatives, and the bill, which contains 67 sections and a multitude of amendments, is still being discussed on the floor of the House. She noted the discussion has been long given the complexity of the issue.
The four legislators had differing opinions as to what the State of Kansas ought to do regarding the legalization of medical marijuana, particularly based on it’s history in other states, and discussions with officials in those states.
Arnberger said she does not want to see a decision made solely based on the tax revenue the state could gain from legalizing medical marijuana. Though she said she is not “100% in favor of medical marijuana,” should a bill pass the Kansas legislature, she would like to see a bill that is conservative, and would not lead to the legalization of recreational use of marijuana.
“I don’t feel comfortable passing something just to get tax dollars,” she said. “I’d want it to be utilized for the right health reasons.”
She also expressed safety concerns on the issue. She said unlike alcohol, right now there is not an adequate method to test if someone is driving while under the influence of marijuana, so it’s legalization could lead to increased hazards on the roadways.
Waymaster said while he is willing to have the conversation about the legalization of medical marijuana, he also said he does not want to see it lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana. His concerns about the issue stem from his conversations legislative officials from Colorado, who he said advised him the legalized use of marijuana in that state has actually cost the state more than the revenue it has brought in.
He was advised Colorado had incurred more increased law enforcement costs than the state had brought in from direct revenue as a result. The official also advised him, he said, the state had incurred a loss of tourism dollars as a result of individuals deciding not to travel to the state as a direct result of the decision to legalize recreational marijuana.
He indicated in Colorado it had led to an increase in underground production and use of the drug as a result of individuals seeking to avoid having their product taxed, as well.
Fairchild, however, took a different perspective on the issue, saying even if marijuana is not legalized, the state should consider decriminalizing it, and lessening penalties for its use. He expressed concern too much is spent on prosecuting and incarcerating individuals for the drug, and favors less government intervention on the issue. He feels this is a position taken by a majority of Kansans, and Americans, and the legislature as it currently stands does not reflect this point of view.