Kansas legislators will gather Jan. 8 in Topeka for one of the most crucial legislative sessions since — well, since 2017.
The truth is Kansas has faced one governmental crisis after another for much of this decade. Much of the blame lies with Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies, who pushed through a tax cut in 2012 that remains a model of how not to run a state.
Legislators began repairing the damage in 2017. Over the governor’s veto, they raised various taxes in an effort to fund state programs at an appropriate level.
As a result, Kansas is closer to fiscal health than it has been in some time. But there are still needs in various state programs, and there are still holes in the budget.
That means lawmakers will have to tackle tax and spending issues in 2018, no matter how distasteful that sounds. That may mean tax increases.
And there are other policy questions awaiting legislators, too.
Here are ways the Legislature can make Kansas a better place to live in 2018.
In 2017, The Star showed in devastating detail how Kansas remains too secretive — a state where citizens are routinely kept in the dark about the workings of their government.
Substantive fixes are essential.
Some steps are easy and should be taken quickly. The Legislature should immediately begin recording all committee votes and should post those votes online. It should require bills to carry the name of the author — no more anonymous drafts.
It should end the practice of “gut and go,” where language is lifted from a minor bill and replaced with major legislation, often without a hearing or notice.
The state’s Governmental Ethics Commission needs more resources and teeth. Searching for campaign spending and contributions is particularly difficult and should be improved.
Once those steps are taken, Kansas can move further into the sunlight. Police body camera footage must become open records, freely available to press and public.
Agencies should be prohibited from telling citizens to keep their secrets. Shredding public documents should be banned. Tax credits and other government handouts must be publicized.
Once these steps are taken, lawmakers should offer voters the opportunity to amend the state constitution and add an elected auditor. Kansas needs an ombudsman — someone who looks out for the people.
▪ School finance
The state’s Supreme Court has said Kansas schools are underfunded. Lawmakers must address that decision.
Calls to amend the constitution to change its guarantee of a suitable education or to prohibit judicial intervention in the issue should be rejected. We’re confident Kansans would oppose such amendments.
One target for additional school spending — $600 million — is extraordinarily aggressive. It will be extremely difficult to provide that much money to schools without damaging other important programs or dramatically increasing taxes.
School districts must prove they’re doing everything they can to keep budgets tight. Kansas should consider consolidating rural districts to save money.
After that, lawmakers should consider a multi-year phase-in to reach full funding for schools. They should also approve an acceptable distribution formula so the state doesn’t end up in court each year.
A profit motive can distort public decisions, leading to added costs and inferior service. Legislators should begin an in-depth study of the privatization effort to decide if it should continue.
▪ The safety net
Kansas has waged a war of humiliation on the poor in the state, a cruelty that should end. Adding new work requirements for food stamps, for example, is unnecessary.
Medicaid should be expanded. And the state sales tax on food, one of the highest such levies in the nation, should be reduced.
Foster care must be improved, with additional money for staff and for providers. Kansas must decide to treat every child with the care and attention they deserve.
▪ Criminal justice reform
We’re increasingly worried about prosecutorial and investigative misconduct in Kansas. Lawmakers should exercise oversight over law enforcement and strengthen the state’s ability to intervene locally if needed.
Judges and jurors should see pay increases. And the state must begin to fairly compensate inmates later found innocent of their crimes.
▪ Other issues
The state has borrowed from taxes meant for road-building, a practice that must end. Additional funds should be found to start restoring the state’s transportation network.
College tuition is growing too high, too quickly. Support for higher education should remain a top priority.
Kansas should continue to encourage wind energy and to protect water resources.
Some of these changes will be easy; others, especially hard. But Kansas has started to recover from its long days in the shadows. The 2018 Legislature should continue that journey.