Legislative update Feb. 4, 2019

Normally, I’d start off by talking about the work we’ve been doing in the Kansas Legislature. But this week, I have to start off by showing you a scandalous photo of me, seemingly captured during one of my late-night excursions to a certain retailer in which nearly everything can be found. There are good shots of Rural Revitalization chair Rep. Don Hineman and Vice-Chair Adam Smith. Funny I didn’t run into them there. 

As you can see, I sometimes swap out my suit and tie for a mountain man get up. It is winter after all, and the weather in Topeka is dreadful this time of year. This creative use of photo manipulation appeared on Bill Otto’s Hologram – a Twitter account that follows the Kansas Legislature, and more often than not, pokes fun at its members. It seems I was due for a turn at Otto’s wrath, after some testimony about the struggles small town grocers face.

Work in our respective committees is starting to pick up, though across the board there hasn’t been much legislation produced to debate on the House floor. That will likely change in the coming weeks, but to date, we’ve not heard a single bill on the floor – outside of the House rules, and a couple of bills on the consent calendar (which are typically non-controversial and get approved automatically unless there’s objection).

We continue to hear compelling testimony in the Rural Revitalization Committee. Our focus last week turned more toward local tax burdens and the issue of rural access to broadband. Most of the information has been designed to help the committee understand what is, and what is not, rural broadband, as well as how well it’s distributed throughout the state. One interesting component of this is that we can’t seem to secure mapping that paints a clear picture of where broadband exists and where it doesn’t. Further complicating things is a patchwork of definitions – is 10 megabit download speed broadband, or is 25 megabit download the standard? Should we be building to the minimum, or should we set our sights higher? Do we need to address the underserved areas, or the unserved areas the most?

One thing is clear on this issue – in today’s economy access to broadband isn’t a luxury. It’s the engine that drives our economy. It’s not just a way for people to watch movies and play games – it’s the way farmers maximize their efforts, and it’s the way we’re selling goods. Communities that don’t have reliable, high-speed internet will not only continue to struggle, they’ll likely struggle to survive.

Commerce and Labor

We held hearings on several bills last week. One was a tax credit for companies that buy goods and services from “qualified vendors” for whom at least 30 percent of the workforce is blind or disabled. The credit is quite large – $500,000 against purchases from each vendor, and it’s capped at $5 million. The credit doesn’t directly go to the companies that employ our blind or disabled friends, but it goes to the companies that purchase things from companies that employ blind or disabled people. I’d like to have a clearer picture of who, exactly, gets the tax credit at the end of the day, but on the whole this helps encourage employment among a population that might otherwise struggle to find work. I supported moving this bill out of committee.

We also heard a good deal of testimony on a bill that would require better accounting and transparency of how business tax incentives are used – and how beneficial they are in creating investment and employment.

Collectively, Kansas taxpayers give away a lot of money to companies that claim they need the money to remain competitive in Kansas. It’s become clear in recent years, however, that sometimes those incentives fall flat and don’t produce the desired results – or worse, that they were misused. This bill would create a database so residents could more easily track such investments and see how they’ve fared. There’s a similar bill making its way through the House Tax Committee – and both are good measures to increase transparency and accountability.

Agriculture

We moved one bill out of agriculture – and it was a fairly simple bill dealing with fee funds that needed to be modernized. We also held a hearing on HB 2062 – which sought to change a handful of words in the Kansas Recreational Trails Act. This bill didn’t seem controversial – but the packed hearing said otherwise. Turns out, this bill, and its changes, could have long lasting implications for trail development in Kansas. One said claims the change clarifies the law, while the other said it will essentially kill recreational trail development in Kansas. I’m a big supporter of trail development – and we can now see a number of examples in and out of the state that demonstrate how much economic activity is created by trails. Not to mention a better quality of life for Kansans.

The big issues

The big issues this year are Medicaid expansion, changes in tax policy, education funding, and the budget.

It seems that again this year, there’s a strong effort to keep down any open debate about Medicaid expansion. There have been bills introduced to expand it, but they’re not being worked in committee. I know about 80 percent of Kansans want it, along with nearly every hospital in the state, but there are a handful of people in Topeka who don’t, so….

Speaking of healthcare – keep an eye out for a number of bills seemingly designed to destabilize the insurance marketplace. You’ll start hearing more about Association Health Plans and other plans that will serve as a substitute for insurance, but really aren’t. One such plan allows for individually rating people – which has the effect of cherry picking the healthiest people who don’t actually need insurance. Until they do, in which case this faux insurance won’t pay for anything, and will boot them off the plan since they’ll now actually need health coverage.

You’ll hear a lot about “decoupling” and “windfalls” this year if Kansas doesn’t adjust its tax code to accommodate changes to federal tax code. My question has always been who gets this money, and how much. Overall, the state’s taxpayers stand to save about $192 million dollars, and early estimates show that only about $54 million will go to the individual taxpayers. I called the Division of the Budget last week to get additional information about who gets how much of this supposed windfall. Call me cynical, but I’ll super surprised if it’s the average Kansan.

We’ve not moved much on school funding or on the budget yet. That’s all in the works, and I expect you’ll see more coming out on various budget proposals in the coming weeks.

As always, feel free to give me a call or shoot me an email to let me know what’s going on.

Jason

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