GIRARD — State legislators attended the regular meeting of the Crawford County Commission Friday to discuss next year’s legislative session, as well as concerns and priorities the commission may have.
Kansas State Representative Monica Murnan (D-Pittsburg) and Kansas State Representative Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac) attended the meeting to talk to the commission about what to expect from the next session.
The commission asked questions about infrastructure, business growth and community services.
A popular topic was the expansion of U.S. Highway 69 to four lanes from Fort Scott to Arma. The expansion was part of the Kansas Department of Transportation T-Works plan, which saw many projects — including the Highway 69 expansion — postponed following the transfer of money from KDOT to balance the state general fund.
T-Works will expire in 2020 and it is unlikely the expansion will be completed by then. Lusker said that he is in favor of putting T-Works projects at the top of the priority list when, and if, KDOT looks at creating another plan.
Commissioner Jeff Murphy said it makes sense for the state to invest in that project first.
“Everyone knows about Highway 69, but something we don’t point out enough is that Crawford County is growing and expanding,” Murphy said. “If we want the state to be successful, we need to invest in areas that are growing. The best way to do that here is with a four lane highway.”
Murnan said she agrees, and encouraged the commission to frequently reach out to KDOT and express support for a new infrastructure plan to be created as soon as possible.
The commission also brought up the state of mental health care in Kansas. The Osawatomie State Hospital currently has a very long waiting list, often leaving those in need of mental health services with nowhere to go. According to Crawford County Mental Health Executive Director Rick Pfeiffer, this leads to more people in our jail and emergency rooms that are not getting the treatment they need
“I don’t think the average citizen understands the impact of what is happening in Osawatomie,” she said. “Not having a place for these people to go and get treatment not only impacts them, but has a trickle down effect on our jails, hospitals and our families.”
Problems like this arose from an attempt by the state to deinstitutionalize mental health care. The plan was to move those in need of mental health treatment back into their communities, and provide those communities with state dollars to fund community-based services. Pfeiffer said this was not a bad idea, but the funding never came to support those community-based services. Instead, he said, it was used to fill holes in the state budget.
The state is now implementing a similar plan with juvenile justice to move offenders out of juvenile detention centers like the one in Girard, and back into the community. The commission fears this will follow the same path as mental health care, and Capital Strategies Lobbyist Bill Brady agrees.
“In my opinion, a lot of mistakes are following juvenile justice that were made with mental health,” Brady said. “Deinstitutionalizing and getting people back into their community is great, but only if the resources are there to help support them.”
Lusker said these problems lead back to the 2012 state tax cuts championed by Governor Sam Brownback. He said the money did not follow the community-based programs and was taken away from infrastructure because it was needed to fill budget holes created by those cuts.
“All the discussions we’re having about mental health and highways — the reason funds weren’t and aren’t there is because of 2012 when the state passed the governor’s tax cuts,” he said. “These programs moving back into the community with no funds to support them are a result of this tax plan.”
Lusker said the way to fix these issues is by bringing in more revenues to the state, but he doesn’t see increased revenue in the near future.
“We need revenue — which means taxes — to build this stuff back up,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see us raise many taxes this year. As bad as that sounds, we did pass a good tax plan last year, which got rid of those 2012 cuts and made a step in the right direction.”
Lusker said for the upcoming session he also plans to bring up the dog track in Frontenac, as well as look at de-annexation statutes.
Murnan mentioned Medicaid expansion as a priority, as well.
Both hope to come to an agreement on school finance with the Kansas Supreme Court as quickly as possible.
— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.