Opinion: There’s plenty for lawmakers to do
The Kansas Legislature will return on May 21 with final, sine die adjournment. In short, the Legislative Coordinating Council decided to pull the plug, despite the huge public health and fiscal problems facing the state. This comes close to a dereliction of duty to the Kansans who elected them.
Meeting during the coronavirus pandemic is difficult, to be sure, but both parties seem willing to hand immense power over to the governor, even as Republican leaders oppose the governor’s schedule to open up the state.
Folding the legislative tent may be understandable, but it is short-sighted. Kansans deserve some vision as they face the future. There are two major issues that the Legislature should have addressed.
First is expanding Medicaid. Right-wing Republican legislators will shout, “This is not the time for such expansion.” Wrong. It’s precisely the right time, as thousands of Kansans are losing their job-related medical coverage.
Second, lawmakers must fund counties’ efforts to encourage as much voting by mail as possible. Kansas already has a “no excuses” absentee-ballot policy that allows every voter to request such a ballot, with no reason needed. Thus, with adequate resources, county clerks can provide every registered voter with easy access to such a ballot in August and November.
What more could the Legislature do? A lot. Most notably, as Speaker Pro Tem Blake Finch has suggested, legislators could create several interim committees, each addressing an important issue-area affected by the coronavirus. Possible subjects include:
1. Criminal justice reform. Kansas has begun to conduct a natural experiment over the past two months, releasing some low-risk prisoners into the general population. The state should fund follow-up research to assess the impact of these actions; implications for incarceration and prison construction could well follow.
2. Public health. Underfunded and divided into a patchwork of entities, the public health system needs complete overhaul from the most remote county to the national government. Kansas could be a leader here.
3. Higher education. The Kansas higher education system was already facing a near-crisis combination of declining enrollment, international student shortfall and tightening research funding before the pandemic; the crisis has emphasized that, for a small state, we support too much higher education. The question of filling the needs of state students is difficult, fraught and essential.
4. Workers. How do we protect workers in dangerous occupations, such as meat-packing? There are federal laws, of course, but the pandemic has demonstrated how problematic these are. Also, what occupations do we actually need to license? Almost all studies show that we over-regulate any number of jobs, from hair stylists to auto mechanics. Which ones do we need to regulate and why?
5. Spending priorities and funding government. Although the Legislature faces budget issues every year, the coronavirus crisis starkly delineates these problems. What should be our long-term priorities?
6. Home rule. The health crisis has powerfully demonstrated that we need to examine home rule for cities and counties. What level of government is appropriate for what policies? Many Republican legislators who decry federal overreach willingly impose restrictions on localities. Time for a re-examination.
Legislators could have done better this year. Still, the Legislative Coordinating Council should ensure that interim committees use the pandemic to seriously rethink our state’s priorities. If so, lawmakers will have fulfilled their responsibilities, and Kansans may well benefit.
— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor at the University of Kansas.