The Road Ahead – An Electoral Vision
By Paul Johnson
Elections really do matter. Kansans elected a new Governor – Laura Kelly – who has promised a political philosophy of moderation, a restoration of critical state services and a ‘common sense’ pragmatism to work in a bi-partisan manner to address key structural issues facing our state. A somewhat more conservative Kansas House and the Kansas Senate will have to be constructive partners in facing the State’s challenges. Progress will take time. Consensus must be found. The national and state economy will have to cooperate to provide the necessary revenues to meet many of these challenges. Priorities will have to be established and progress made in increments to reverse a decade of decline.
Governor Kelly was very clear in her stated priorities of resolving public school financing, expanding Medicaid for 150,000 uninsured Kansans, jumpstarting a stalled transportation plan, and fixing a broken child welfare system that has failed thousands of children. The revenue picture will be critical.
The Governor pledged no new taxes so continued economic recovery is vital. Good news came in November when official revenue forecasts increased income tax revenues by over $300 million. But continued performance is still uncertain. Sales tax revenue is as important as income tax to the Kansas’ State General Fund (SGF) and the forecast for sales tax growth is at best uncertain. With recent U.S Supreme Court decisions on taxing internet sales and allowing states to enter the realm of sports betting, there may be additional revenues to Kansas but it will take time to expedite these expanded revenue sources. The caution light is that the U.S. economy is in its longest economic expansion ever and recessions are a way of life for a market economy.
While the Governor has laid out certain priorities, it will be essential for lawmakers working with the Governor’s office to establish essential, substantive policy proposals for Kansas. As a co-equal branch of government, the Legislature should play its role in policy development and assist the public in focusing on certain issues including those below:
Housing. This debate should begin with developing a Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy to promote economic development statewide and confront housing affordability for thousands of economically challenged families in Kansas. Once the semi-private Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC) was separated from the Kansas Department of Commerce & Housing in 2003, KHRC has been out of sight and out of mind to most legislators.
KHRC does not present a complete annual report to legislative committees to assess progress with multi-family rental construction, weatherization funding and expenditures from the federal Community Development Block Grant. The statewide First Time Homebuyers Loan program – administered by Sedgwick and Shawnee Counties – has been non-existent for the last four years. The Governor working with the Legislature should re-establish a Governor’s Commission on Housing that reports on housing accomplishments and lists policy recommendations and place the First Time Homebuyers Loan program within KHRC.
Hunger. Hunger exists here in the nation’s breadbasket. According to an Issue Brief from the Kansas Health Institute in 2015, one in six Kansas households were food insecure in 2013 (with 1 in 5 households with children food insecure, and 1 in 3 households of single women with children food insecure). Kansas ranked 44th of the 50 states in that 31% of those eligible for food stamps (SNAP) did not access them. Kansas ranked 50th for the percent of low-income children served by the Summer Food Service Program. (Note: this has improved some since 2015). Food stamps or SNAP accounted for 70% of all public or private food assistance in Kansas in 2013.
From 2013 to 2018, SNAP assistance declined from $471 million to $299 million with 41,000 children and 62,000 adults losing benefits. The Department of Children and Families must be adequately staffed to assure participation and access to SNAP.
Energy and Energy Efficiency. Kansas continues to falter in researching the opportunities of energy efficiency and providing energy conservation programs. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Kansas ranks just 45th of the 50 states in having utility-based or governmental conservation programs. Kansas is one of just six states that have not developed a statewide energy plan.
The Kansas Corporation Commission has not fully researched the potential for energy efficiency investments compared to expanding power production. By law, public utilities are required to ‘furnish reasonably efficient and sufficient service and facilities’ to obtain their monopoly ‘service area’ status. This law passed in 1933 so it needs to be updated to the 21st century since energy efficiency investments are far less costly than power production today, and the Kansas Corporation Commission mandated to develop a statewide energy plan.
FOOD. Local food production deserves greater discussion. Kansas imports 95% of the fruits and vegetables ($770 million) consumed in the state. Kansas has a diminishing number of small state inspected meat plants left that might process 10% of the meat consumed in Kansas. Kansas has no commercial-sized poultry plant to process live chickens. Kansas has an emerging local and regional food system sector of both vegetables and fruit as well as meat and poultry needing to be served.
Kansas has a Beginning Farmer Loan Program (hidden away at the Kansas Development Finance Authority) that makes $4-6 million in loans yearly but could be expanded significantly if properly promoted. In energy Kansas established a 20% goal of electrical power by 2020 from renewable energy, meeting that goal in 2016, with 35% produced renewably last year. Kansas should consider setting local food production goals to keep our food dollars reverberating locally, promote healthier diets that would result in lower medical costs, and offer new enterprise opportunities to farmers.
Also, the State Legislature’s Local Food and Farm Task Force provided two reports (2015 and 2016) for ways the state could enhance local and regional food production and economic opportunities. These reports built on the KRC and partners’ “Feeding Kansas” report of 2014. Progress at the state level was hampered by the state’s economic woes, while people around the state are moving forward. Now it is time to look at all of those again and reaffirm how the state can help accomplish those recommendations and goals to build a local/regional food economy.
Federal Farm Bill. The federal farm bill programs provide a large amount of money to Kansas farmers and agriculture in general. Congress just passed and the president signed the 2018 Farm Bill just before the holidays, and now completing the appropriations process is underway. Too often legislators punt on Farm Bill issues leaving it to our Congressional reps. But this year Informational hearings on the federal farm bill were held in the Senate Ways and Means and House Agriculture committees—a good start to better understanding how this important federal legislation impacts Kansas.
Rural Revitalization is a new committee established this session to focus specifically on rural issues. Rural communities have been declining for several decades. According to population statistics, rural Kansas is bleeding people, especially young people. Schools are challenged with maintaining enrollments. Mainstreets are dotted with empty buildings. Rural hospitals are in financial trouble. Rural grocery stores are dwindling leaving some communities in the heart of farm country as food deserts. There is a lack of affordable housing for those who would stay or return. A number of informational hearings will start the session off as the committee gets it feet under it to begin addressing needs.
KRC once more offers its Weekly Legislative E-Update from the beginning of the session through May or the end of the session and will be covering many of the above issues. The Updates also include Calendar for key hearings, and information on how to contact or identify your legislator. Contact Mary Fund to be added to the mailing list. You can view back issues of the Updates on KRC’s website at:
(A version of this article was published in Policy Watch #1 Jan. 11, 2019). Contact Paul Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.