“To the stars through difficulties” is the Kansas motto, but during Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, it often seemed that the state faced nothing but difficulties.
Brownback’s deep tax cuts forced the state into tenuous times as it was unable to pay for even basic services, such as protecting vulnerable children or ensuring that every student receives a quality education.
Now, thanks to new leadership, Kansas can finally redirect its trajectory.
In 2019, the state has a precious opportunity to conquer the twin challenges of funding public schools to meet a state Supreme Court mandate and finally expanding Medicaid.
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To achieve both, the state needs political will and a few bucks. Fortunately, Kansas now has both. The political landscape has changed with the election of Laura Kelly as governor. Instead of having to build a coalition that includes two-thirds of lawmakers to override a gubernatorial veto of Medicaid expansion as was the case in 2017, legislators can pass the measure with simple majorities, and Kelly will sign the bill.
And thanks to the courageous decision to boost taxes in recent years in an urgent effort to pull the state out of Brownback’s ill-advised fiscal hole, the state finally has the money to tackle these priorities.
Kelly pledged to accomplish these two objectives during her administration, and she wisely continues to push the idea that both can be done with bipartisan support. That’s a dramatic switcheroo from the Brownback years when it was all GOP, all the time, and Democrats were barely more than an afterthought.
Projections now show that Kansas will likely have more than $900 million in additional revenue this year. Prior commitments will chew up a chunk of that money, but members of both parties are now confident that they will have the $100 million on hand that Kelly believes is needed to meet the court’s demand for school spending. Importantly, that can happen without a tax increase.
Many legislators also believe that the state has the additional $76 million or so needed to expand Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. The Kansas Hospital Association says that savings as a result of expansion will actually cover that cost and more.
“This program generates more cost savings and revenues for the state of Kansas than it costs the state of Kansas,” said Cindy Samuelson, a Kansas Hospital Association spokeswoman.
Finally, after years of exporting tax dollars to other states to fund their Medicaid programs, Kansas could spend that money at home.
All this would represent an enormously promising beginning to Kelly’s administration. But it would only be a start. Still on the to-do list would be rolling back the state’s sky-high, 6.5 percent tax on food, doing more to protect vulnerable kids, repairing the state’s highway program and bolstering state pensions.
All are critical. Legislative leaders expect Kelly to name a blue-ribbon task force to examine the state’s tax structure and make recommendations. It’s almost impossible to see how reducing the grocery tax wouldn’t rank high on that list.
Cutting that tax costs about $70 million for each percentage point, or $420 million to wipe out the state’s share. That would be another big step forward for a state that seeks to move past the many difficulties it’s faced in recent years.