PITTSBURG — Local state legislators from both the House and Senate spoke during a luncheon Thursday, before reconvening for the 2018 session on Monday.
The Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the luncheon, which gave senators and representatives an opportunity to speak on their goals. The chamber also announced its legislative priorities for the 2018 session, allowing legislators to respond.
The chamber’s three priorities included completing the expansion of U.S. Highway 69 to four lanes from Fort Scott to Pittsburg, the expansion of KanCare and the restoration of cuts made to Pittsburg State University.
“When we handle requests from businesses, they ask if we are on a four-lane highway. For too long now we’ve had to say ‘No, but…’,” Chamber President Blake Benson said. “It’s time to say ‘yes.’”
The luncheon was attended by Kansas State Representatives Monica Murnan (D-Pittsburg) and Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac), as well as Senators Richard Hilderbrand (R-Baxter Springs) and Caryn Tyson (R-Parker).
Lusker said funds meant for Highway 69 were simply robbed to fill holes in the state budget created by a set of 2012 tax cuts, championed by Governor Sam Brownback.
“We wanted 18 miles and we got six,” Lusker said. “That other 12 miles isn’t getting built because of bad tax policy, let’s make no bones about it.”
Legislators dialed those cuts back during the last session. Last year’s tax bill returned the state to three tax brackets, ended a “march to zero” income tax and closed a pass through for small business — often referred to as the LLC Loophole.
“We’ve made strides in the right direction,” Lusker said. “Some of my colleagues may not agree with that, but we were at the point in Kansas last year where we didn’t have many places to go before our checks started bouncing.”
As for the restoration of cuts to PSU, Lusker said K-12 education funding will likely be the main focus of this legislative session, which may cause higher education to take a back seat.
Murnan said she hopes quick action will be taken on K-12 funding this session, but isn’t sure that will happen.
“We have a lawsuit, we have a timeline, we know what we have to do,” Murnan said. “We can talk about it more, but we need to take action. I don’t want to dilly dally — although I think we will.”
Hilderbrand said while he did not serve for the full session last year, he is ready to get to work and look at what needs to be done with education funding.
“Our children are our future and we need to give them every opportunity,” he said. “That solution may not be adding more money, but moving money from other areas. It’s something we need to look at and take seriously.”
Benson said health care is a significant driver of the Pittsburg area economy, which is why support of KanCare expansion was put on its priority list. KanCare expansion was passed in both the House and Senate last session, but was vetoed by Brownback. The legislature failed to overturn the veto.
Via Christi Hospital President Randy Cason said without the expansion, hospitals and community health centers are left covering for the population without health insurance, which holds back the industry and quality of care.
Tyson said blanket expansion is not the right option for Kansas, and a unique solution needs to be found.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we need a Kansas solution for KanCare,” she said. “Not an Obamacare, blanket solution.”
However, Murnan said it has been made clear that southeast Kansans are willing to pay for health care, as well as education.
“The bottom line is people were clear they are willing to pay for education and for health care for our elderly and disabled,” she said.
Murnan also urged any constituents to contact her with areas they believe can be cut. She said she is willing to listen to any specific ideas.
The legislators expressed that bipartisan work is key, but Lusker said bipartisan support may not be seen as often this session with looming elections later this year.
“I think bipartisanship and consensus won’t be as easy this year,” he said. “The elections coming up in 2018 will affect this session. We’re going to see a lot of grandstanding and pontificating.”
Benson also announced that the chamber will once again host a series of “First Friday” legislative updates during the 2018 session. More details are to be announced about the series.
— 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.