The second of two Legislative Coffees was held Saturday at the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce, with about 20 people coming to hear Sen. Mary Jo Taylor (R-Stafford) and Rep. Troy Waymaster (R-Bunker Hill.)
At the first Legislative Coffee back on Feb. 3, Kansas had just gotten a new governor, Jeff Colyer, Taylor recalled.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen and we didn’t know what his stance was going to be on certain things,” she said.
But one thing Colyer had done while he was still Lieutenant Governor was to name a new interim director of the Department of Children and Families, Gina Meier-Hummel. It came at a time of glaring problems, including a report that 70 children in Kansas foster care could not be accounted for.
“Most of us as Kansans want to think our children at risk are being taken care of in a better manner than that,” Taylor said.
Meier-Hummel was a good choice, and last Friday the Senate's public health committee held a hearing for her.
“I’m a fan,” Taylor said, adding she hopes Meier-Hummel’s appointment is confirmed and signed by the governor.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment also had an interim appointment, Taylor noted. Governor Sam Brownback appointed Jeff Anderson as the new acting secretary for KDHE and the public health committee will hold the hearing for that appointment on Monday.
At a last meeting of the freshman caucus — the group of new legislators — Colyer dropped by and answered questions. Taylor said she was there even though she is not a freshman at Topeka.
“We, as well as you, kind of want to know — what are your plans governor? What can we expect of you?”
She said Colyer handled questions well but, “I really wanted to know where he stood on Medicare expansion. He is a doctor by profession but he was also an architect of Kancare,” she said.
“He didn’t answer,” Taylor said. But Rep. Jason Probst, the former opinion editor of the Hutchinson News, asked good questions that got to the heart of the matter.
“Finally, (Colyer) said, ‘I think there’s a better way.’ He doesn’t support expansion of Medicare,” Taylor said.
In other news, Taylor said the Senate is “a-buzz” since Senator John Doll from Garden city announced his resignation from the Republican Party. He has decided to run for Lt. Governor with Greg Orman as an independent.
Waymaster speaks at the coffee
Waymaster is chairman of the House appropriations committee. As representative of the 109th district, he serves portions of Barton County, with Claflin being the largest Barton County that he represents.
“As many of you are aware, the state of Kansas has had a financial issue for the last five years,” Waymaster said. “I want to be a part of the solution.”
In February, Kansas collected $26.7 million more in tax receipts that revenue forecasters had expected, he said. The new federal tax law is also bringing in more income. As the result, the states is $565 million in the black, “which is a considerable jump from last year,” he said. Reserves are at 8.1 percent.
This earned a smattering of applause from those in attendance.
Departments that have been making cuts for years are have been feeling the strain. “This year they were told to go ahead and ask for (funding increases) because they may get it.”
The recent pay increase for state employees was handled very poorly, in Waymaster’s opinion. There was no administration to inform people whether they would or would not receive a pay increase, and why or why not.
All judicial employees received a 2.5 percent pay increase, he said. State employees receive some of the lowest compensation of any state, he said. “Our non-judicial employees are ranked 49th in the nation,” he said, adding judges are 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia for district judges’ compensation.
Kansas Board of Regents received a tax cut last year and Waymaster said he hopes the funds can be restored. “We’ll know more about K-12 on Thursday,” he said. The study by Texas A&M consultant Lori Taylor is scheduled to be released on March 15.
Waymaster also noted that some of his Claflin constituents are interested in a proposal to change the taxing structure on slot machines and dog and horse racetracks. They have to pay a higher tax than slot machines at casinos.
The legislators noted the field of candidates for the gubernatorial race.
Richard Shank from Hutchinson Regional Healthcare Center, which sponsored the coffee and an earlier one in January, asked, “Will education be resolved?”
“We hope so,” Waymaster said. Technically, it has to.”
County Treasurer Barb Esfeld asked if the Legislature had considered removing the exemption on the first $20,000 in appraised value on homes. The state tax for education is 20 mills, but that first $20,000 is exempt from the statewide school mill levy. Dropping that would amount to $46 per home, she said.
“People loathe property taxes,” more than any other kind of tax, Waymaster said.
Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Director Jan Peters asked, “What about paying back the Kansas Department of Transportation?”
“We’re looking at that as well,” Waymaster said. Because funds were not transferred to KDOT, the department could not afford maintenance, let alone new projects. In his area, work north of Russell on U.S. 281 was delayed.
The Kansas Public Employment Retirement System also needs to be fully funded, Taylor said. “It’s nice that we’re not in the red, but a lot of the agencies have been on hold for years.”