Even though the rest of the Kansas legislature may be taking a break, Sen. Mary Jo Taylor has been busy since the end of the protracted session on June 26. The soon-to-be former Stafford USD 249 superintendent still has two weeks to go before her replacement takes over, and she can officially retire from her school career. Still, that didn’t keep the Stafford Republican from attending the Great Bend Rotary Club meeting Monday where she shared insights gleaned from her freshman year as a state Senator.
First, the 33rd District state senator gave an overview of progress made on each of the three committees she was assigned to.
She’s faced a big learning curve as a freshman member of the Senate Ag and Natural Resources committee. There, she learned the importance of fighting for the state’s water fund, which is currently unfunded.
On the Public Health and Welfare Committee, she worked to expand Medicaid, and was disappointed that did not happen. Receiving the federal dollars Kansans are already paying for would have been a boost for the economy and healthcare in general, she said.
She learned that in the event of an override, the chamber of origin is the first to hear the argument and act. Since the House couldn’t get enough votes to override, the issue died before the Senate could act.
She was excited at first to be assigned to the Public Education Committee, she said, but was later disappointed. While fighting to bring better funding to education was one of the reasons she decided to serve, she learned an important lesson. If the chairman of the committee isn’t particularly in favor of education, little actual work will be completed. Still, she went to every committee meeting, she said, listening to testimony so she could judge for herself if what they were doing was correct, was enough or not enough.
“This committee did work very hard,” she said. “And we did get a little bit of money for education. Not enough, but we did get a little bit and we have a guarantee for a little bit more, but there is a lot of work to be done, not only in education, but all areas that need work done.”
On the horizon, the upcoming gubernatorial race will be important.
“The field is crowded with candidates from both parties, so it’s kind of an exciting time,” she said. Nonetheless, some of her Republican colleagues feel certain Kris Kobach is the presumptive new governor.
“They are more experienced than I, but I think it’s too soon to tell, and I’m looking forward to some animated discussion about who could be our best governor when it’s time to go to the primaries and elect one,” she said.
The results of the next election will be critical to how much more progress is made in returning the state to the financial condition it was in when Governor Sam Brownback was elected in 2012, she said. Even with the current income tax increase, taxes aren’t as high as they were in 2012, though the state is now on the road to stopping the bleeding.
“I feel a little bit better about the direction this state is going, still it could be a 10-year recovery just to become as fiscally sound as we were,” she said.
Questions from the audience concerned teacher pay, employee shortages at Larned State Hospital, concerns about caring for people with mental health issues in the state’s prison system, aquifer sustainability, and highway funding.
She was also asked if she felt she was pressured to give into various causes by lobbyists or others.
“Not as much as I thought,” was her reply. She explained the different types of lobbyists she encounters in Topeka and elsewhere.
Some, she said, are paid by only one group, and they are very knowledgeable and she wouldn’t hesitate to turn to them to get information. But contract lobbyists, she’s learned, represent as many groups as they can. These, she said, are far less knowledgeable and a much more persuasive.
Lobbyists for the “uncorked” bill, SB-13, were out in force this year she said, pushing for passage of the bill that would allow the sale of 6.0 percent alcohol-by-volume beverages in grocery, drug and convenience stores. According to her legislative newsletter, “Taylor Made,” she voted against the measure, which passed nonetheless, in order to protect small businesses in her district.