By Jonathan Ondrashek
Junction City Union
Saturday, fresh off what Kansas lawmakers dub “turnaround week,” Senator Jeff Longbine and Representatives Lonnie Clark and Dave Baker spoke with local citizens at the Junction City Municipal Building during the second Legislative Coffee session of 2020.
Turnaround week refers to the midpoint deadline where legislators have either rejected or passed bills from one chamber to another (unless tied up in special committees or federally).
“We passed 56 pieces of legislation in the Senate this week,” Longbine stated in his opening remarks before highlighting some he felt were of interest to Junction City.
He tackled property taxes first.
“Number one, last year’s property tax valuation cannot be raised during an [appeals] process,” Longbine said. “We’ve had a couple of instances across the state where people go in to appeal their value, and the county appraiser – out of spite or whatever – has raised their value instead of keeping it the same or lowering it. With this legislation, it would freeze the value and the appraiser couldn’t raise it during the appeals process.”
He also said the passed bill would not allow routine maintenance, such as painting or landscaping, to increase property value.
If someone were to put a new roof on their house, though, Longbine said, it would “probably” increase the value because appraisal is based on fair market value.
“Another major, major piece of legislation that passed this week in the Senate,” he continued, “is the capital approved state aid schedule.”
This bill would remove Fort Leavenworth USD 207 from the state aid calculation since it is mostly federally owned, which could drive more aid to other districts, including USD 475.
“I had a conversation this week with a [USD 475] school board member, and I think we have 23 years outstanding on some bonds,” Longbine said. “This could reduce payoff all the way down to eight years [on those bonds]. It is a significant savings to the district, which would be a significant difference in property taxes.”
Another bill passed by the Kansas Senate brings the state a step closer to legalizing sports betting, both online and at retail locations. Greyhound racing would not be prohibited under this legislature, though an amendment to do so had been rejected. Its fate currently resides with the House and is “completely different” in scope, Longbine said, adding that Sedgwick County, which houses the only greyhound-eligible track in Kansas, has maintained its ban on that particular type of racing.
Medicaid expansion remains tied up in both chambers for various reasons, though Longbine stated he was a staunch supporter of it. He is currently helping to create an amendment to the bill introduced earlier this year.
“We’re very, very close to having the number of votes we need. I would expect it (to be passed in the Senate) by April break,” he said. “We are working diligently on that every day. [The bill] has some really good things for all of Kansas, but particularly for my hospitals in Junction City and Emporia and Wamego. It’s a huge issue.”
Representative Lonnie Clark spoke on House matters next.
“We had a number of things pertaining to vet and military issues,” he said. “The big one that I was most excited about was the bill that allows military spouses to transfer licenses from state to state [with] basically no waiting period. It would’ve been nice if it had been less of a waiting period, but they don’t have to retake the license. It makes it much easier for military families to transfer to Kansas.”
In both the House and Senate, additional amendments would extend this to nonmilitary professionals such as teachers and nurses as well, except with a longer wait. In all instances, it allows licensed professionals to jump into the Kansas workforce immediately while background checks are being performed.
“We want to keep military here,” Clark continued, “so we had a revitalized housing bill that went through that allows [military personnel and vets] to buy homes more easily. It makes it more attractive for them to buy and stay and try to keep some of that military workforce in Kansas.”
On agriculture, where Clark serves on a special committee, he said, “We transferred a pesticide law out of agriculture that will allow more access to pesticide application based on license. It’s going to basically make the license a lot easier to do . . . with less regulation.”
He clarified that the bill “is still going to regulate it – wind, amount of application, and all those things that go into spraying – but will make it a lot easier for farmers to get the pesticides and put the application on themselves, rather than having a certified licensed person out there watching and telling them what to do and what they can’t do.”
Representative Dave Baker began by lauding the school bonding bill Senator Longbine had talked about before elaborating on the housing revitalization bill Clark had mentioned.
He said, “We have a first-time buyer’s initiative that works similar to a 529 plan,” which is a college savings plan that offers tax and financial aid benefits. “There will be all kinds of abilities for different people to help first-time home buyers. It may not be your child – maybe a grandchild, a niece, a nephew – and you can each put in up to $3,000 or $6,000 a year in order to help that child purchase a house and stay here in Kansas. We gotta figure out a way to get these young people ownership of a house. When you sell real estate, you figure out real quick the problems that [people] have with money, especially for a down payment. [This bill] would help get them through that hurdle.”
Baker stated there would also be progress on a broadband bill later this year.
“The broadband issue is really difficult,” he said. “With the changes in technology, and the way we run our country, brick and mortar stores are at a huge disadvantage now because more and more of that world is shifting to the internet. [But] not all the locations in Kansas have the internet.”
Meade County, for example, has no broadband.
“It’s not a matter of a little. They have zero” internet signal, Baker said, adding lack of broadband in rural areas mostly impacts agriculture in Kansas. “We need to get out in front of that.”
Baker also discussed how statewide revitalization could help change the format in nursing homes across the state.
“Northwest Kansas has some new models for their nursing home care. It’s more of an individualized care, and they’ve got some examples of how the residents have improved” after getting into the programs, he said.
“I’m a huge proponent for changes in longterm care,” Baker continued, sharing how he visited nursing homes as a child with his father. “I have a great passion for that and I want to see some changes, and we need to do everything we can to improve that situation.”
Baker next talked about offering Kansans the ability to purchase black vehicle license plates with white lettering at an extra cost. The excess fees would go directly to local KDOT funds.
“Iowa has been the first state that’s done [this], and it’s been a huge success,” he said. “The marketing on that would be critical, but it would be a really good deal for different communities throughout the state.”
Baker serves on the House tax committee and spoke about related obstacles for the state candidly.
“I thought we had a deal this year that we weren’t going to increase exemptions, but deal’s off. New deal: everybody has more exemptions.
“The problem with state government – we have planned revenue, but it’s the way we exempt everybody that’s the problem,” he said, claiming Kansas has over 1,700 exemptions that amounts to over $6 billion a year in lost sales tax revenue.
Sales taxes on barbers and other services would not pass on this bill, Baker and Longbine clarified.
Services, business-to-business wholesale transactions, and utilities are “three areas that are exempt [and] account for almost 90 percent of the lost sales tax revenue,” Longbine said, though he expressed it might not be worth pursuing removing individual exemptions in many cases.
Baker also said, though “we’re okay financially right now,” the recent plummets in the stock market driven by the novel coronavirus epidemic will impact Kansas further.
“Those changes in the stock market will impact each and every one of us,” he said. “Commodities – oil, cattle, soybeans – [are all] in bad shape. I am very concerned about that because we are commodity driven in the state of Kansas.”
Another House bill that passed would grant new benefits to Tier I KP&F (Kansas Police and Fireman’s Retirement System) members.
Lonnie Clark said the bill “will allow the wife and kids to be taken care of if in fact something happens to a police officer or fireman while they’re on duty.”
During the Q&A session, he and Longbine clarified that the bill did not pertain to death stemming from hypertension or PTSD when off duty unless pre-diagnosed, though further amendments for duty-related illnesses or disabilities were being considered.
When asked what the state is doing about the novel coronavirus, Baker said, “The KDHE is working with the CDC and the federal government on trying to control – making sure medical facilities are available, making sure that protective gear to treat is available – and I think we’re doing as much as we can right now.
“The briefing we got was that the majority of coronavirus [cases] are no [worse] than the common cold,” he said, “but severity level can increase. We don’t have a documented case in Kansas, so there aren’t any plans at this point to restrict travel or gatherings or anything like that. We’ll continue to monitor.”
Clark chimed in, stating he’d been on a recent call with Vice President Mike Pence. According to Clark, Pence indicated the most efficient way to deal with the coronavirus thus far has been to be reactive rather than proactive.
“They’ve got the method in-house to get that preparation stuff to a place if there is an instance – whether they think its coronavirus or it actually is the coronavirus – but to mandate every state to supply medication and isolation is so expensive and hit-and-miss at this point that they don’t want to mandate it,” Clark said.