The Kansas Legislature will begin its 2019 session this week with a clear opportunity to bury the disagreements and disappointments of the past eight years.
Progress is now possible. Lawmakers and soon-to-be Gov. Laura Kelly should seize the moment by bringing real reform to the state.
But the early signs are not encouraging. In separate interviews with The Star editorial board last week, Kelly and House Speaker Ron Ryckman seemed hesitant to take the first step toward offering real answers. Each said they’re waiting for the other to open the bidding for the session.
Change “has to be incremental,” Kelly said. Fair enough. After the spending and taxing nightmare of the Sam Brownback years, caution is important.
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Politics are involved, too: Kelly is a Democrat, and conservatives have added to their strength in the Legislature. Some issues will remain unresolved because of intractable differences in philosophy.
“I understand … the opposition will try to make me fail,” Kelly said.
“We had 85 Republicans elected to the House out of 125,” Ryckman told us. “That’s overwhelmingly a mandate for core Republican principles.”
But Kansas voters were clear in 2018: They want practical solutions for old problems, regardless of party. They expect their elected representatives to deliver this year. Compromise and coalition-building will be essential.
With that approach in mind, here’s a reasonable, achievable agenda for the 2019 session of the Kansas Legislature.
▪ Education: Kansas can end the legal battle over spending for the state’s schoolchildren. By most accounts, it will take roughly $90 million more a year for the next four years to meet the Supreme Court’s requirements for adequate funding.
That money is available, thanks to a recovering economy and the work of the previous Legislature to undo the Brownback tax experiment. Lawmakers should appropriate the funds, and the court should dismiss the case.
Republicans say the plan endangers a balanced budget two or three years from now. Many of those Republicans were strangely mute when Gov. Brownback blew the budget to pieces a few years ago, and their views should be discounted now.
Inadequate funding for schools cheats kids.
Lawmakers should reject any plan that rewrites the school finance formula. They also should reject any constitutional amendment restricting the courts’ role in school finance cases.
▪ Medicaid expansion: Kansas should extend Medicaid health insurance coverage as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Expanding Medicaid would help working Kansans and their children, improve mental health treatment and boost struggling rural hospitals.
It’s possible Medicaid expansion can be accomplished without a significant impact on the state’s budget. And some Republicans seem willing to listen to expansion ideas, as long as the money is directed to rural areas. That’s encouraging.
▪ Taxes: Republicans are likely to seek income tax reductions equal to new state revenue generated by federal tax reform. Kelly will oppose that idea, arguing that no one knows how much money that is.
Hers is the right approach. Let the dust settle before cutting income taxes in Kansas.
At the same time, Kelly has taken property tax relief and a food sales tax cut off the table for this year. That’s disappointing. She supported both during the campaign.
A reasonable reduction in regressive taxes, phased in over time, should be pursued this year.
▪ Foster care: The governor-elect has promised to pursue fundamental reforms in the state’s child welfare and foster care system. This overhaul is long overdue.
Some of the needed changes can be handled by the executive branch alone. If the Department for Children and Families needs additional resources, though, lawmakers should provide them.
They should also restore recent cuts to aid for poor families. “Kansas must address the large gaps in the social safety net,” said a recent report by Strengthen Families Rebuild Hope, a child welfare coalition. “It seems unlikely that these reductions are not contributing to the foster care crisis.”
▪ Election reform: County commissioners, not the secretary of state, should pick election supervisors in every county. Every county should use the same standard for counting ballots. Neither is happening now.
Kelly told us she supports same-day voter registration in Kansas. The idea has merit, but most Republicans will oppose it.
▪ Other issues: Kansas should enact sports gambling this year and pursue an internet sales tax bill. Both will add to the state’s revenue, allowing it to cut taxes in other areas.
The state’s prisons need a full review. Mental health services deserve similar scrutiny.
Ryckman says there is interest in addressing the decline of rural Kansas. We support that effort.
The 2019 agenda for Kansas is broad. But with a few exceptions, including the foster care system, the crisis of the Brownback years is largely over. Kansans can look to the future again.
That work starts this week.