The 2017 Kansas legislative session is already more than three months old, but for all practical purposes the real work begins Monday when lawmakers return to Topeka.
The same set of problems that awaited legislators in January will greet them anew: tax policy, a massive budget deficit, school funding and Medicaid expansion.
One more hot-button issue that hasn’t gone away is whether guns should be allowed in state mental institutions and the University of Kansas Hospital.
All this adds up to the most loaded agenda for a wrap-up session maybe in state history, and it means that lawmakers could well surpass the state record for longest legislative session, which now stands at 113 days.
Taxpayers will need to be patient as lawmakers struggle to navigate this tidal wave of issues in a legislative body divided among conservative and moderate Republicans and Democrats. The lack of a ruling bloc will make negotiations on tough issues all the tougher.
Lawmakers should not be afraid to be bold, whether it’s on tax policy or school spending. With no elections looming this year, the time to strike is now. They should seek to wipe out the state’s $900 million budget deficit and establish a stable tax structure that allows businesses and homeowners to plan ahead. Kansas has had only tax chaos in recent years.
Here’s what lawmakers need to do:
Tax policy: As we’ve recommended before, Kansas needs a three-bracket income tax system to make its tax code more progressive. What’s known as the LLC exemption, now enjoyed by 330,000 Kansas businesses, needs to go. It’s inherently unfair, it hasn’t produced promised job growth and Kansans don’t like it.
School finance: The Kansas Supreme Court said the Legislature must adopt a new funding formula by June 30 or face the prospect of school closings. But as of today, neither the House nor the Senate has voted on a bill.
To meet the court’s requirements, lawmakers need to boost spending by at least $150 million a year for five years. The new law must meet the needs of districts as diverse as those in Blue Valley and Wyandotte County. It’s also time for lawmakers to adopt all-day kindergarten, a change long overdue in a state that, despite recent setbacks, still prides itself on quality schools.
Medicaid expansion: Yes, we sound like a broken record. So we’ll say it again: Expanding Medicaid is a no-brainer with so many rural hospitals under severe financial stress. Lawmakers should try one more time to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto. This issue is that important, and expansion advocates are oh-so-close to a big win.
Other concerns linger. The state pension system and highway program need money. Brownback’s reckless tax cuts have drained dollars from both. Lawmakers need to stand up to the National Rifle Association and ban guns from hospitals and mental institutions or the state will needlessly spend tens of millions on beefed-up security. That money would be far better spent on real people.
Brownback, who appears on the verge of bolting Kansas for the Trump administration, could do his sorry legacy some good by actively working with lawmakers to restore fiscal sanity to his state. Vetoing his way out of office won’t serve anyone.
To be fair, lawmakers will need to bend, too. That’s the only way to navigate the extraordinary challenges that await.