The upcoming legislative session will have a number of differences from the past.
One is a new dynamic of legislators, but the other is working with Governor-elect Laura Kelly. Franklin County state representatives Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, sees opportunities ahead to grow Kansas.
“We have to come together and start focusing on problems again,” Samsel, who was elected for the first time Tuesday, said. “The folks are tired of the partisan bickering and not getting along with one another. It does take everybody to move our state forward.”
Finch, who was re-elected for a fourth term, said there will be a feeling out period during the early portion of the session.
“There is always a change when you have a change in administration,” he said. “There are new staffers, cabinet secretaries and new appointees. Getting to know the new players and working with them. Figuring out what we need to do to make things happen for the folks back home. There will be a transition period that will take several months to figure out.”
Both said schools, healthcare and a new transportation plan will be among the topic issues in 2019.
“The big one will always be school finance,” Finch said. “The lawsuit is still ongoing. The Legislature has to come up with more money for schools.
“There is the transportation task force meeting to come up with a new transportation plan. How we fund it will be the question. We will continue to see developments in healthcare and health services in particular.”
Samsel said schools bind small communities together.
“The money is an important component of it,” Samsel said. “We are really close to the finish line. The litigation is not good for anybody. It costs the state money and time. Hopefully, we can get that behind us and concentrate on getting our kids ready for the future. Education impacts everything across the board.”
Finch said there needs to be a balancing act with school funding.
“Schools is taking a huge chunk [of the state budget],” he said. “The legislative research department has computed what the inflation should be. It is somewhere between $350 and $400 million over the next three or four years. That is a significant chunk of money. If you put that into the budget, we are no longer in the black. We dip down into a deficit. That will have to be addressed.
“There are a lot of good ideas out there like cutting the sales tax on food. We have to figure out how much we can do and fit it into our budget. As long as you got the court ordering more and more money to schools, it will be difficult to do.”
Samsel said childhood education is a priority for him.
“The gaps we allow from the time they are even 2 or 3 years old to the time they are 5 years old is so huge,” Samsel said. “It is tough to play catchup later on. I don’t like spending taxpayer money, unless we are getting bang for our buck. Early child [education] is the best investments we can ever make.”
Mental health funding and KanCare expansion are on the priority list.
Finch said KanCare expansion needs to follow the Indiana and Michigan plans.
“Everybody that benefits from it pays a little and what you end up with is not breaking the bank,” he said. “You don’t have a state budget that is structurally imbalanced going forward. Those healthcare costs don’t go down. [KanCare expansion plans] need a lot more work from the versions we have seen. It is appropriate to talk about how we get more people covered by health insurance and how we provide better healthcare in this state.”
Samsel said KanCare expansion is a divisive issue.
“There is quite a bit of disagreement with that,” he said. “We are going to have a big debate on it. It is going to take cooperation from the federal government. KanCare expansion is a temporary fix. In the short term, having some healthcare is a better option than none at all.”
Samsel said mental health funding has been low on the priority list too long.
“We have to make sure we have those facilities available to help people,” he said. “Osawatomie State Hospital historically has done an outstanding job with that. It needs a lot of love right now. Some of that is going to be funding and some is support in the community. Getting all the people to the table and be able to help our [residents}, so we are not releasing them back out into our communities where [they] become a burden for our law enforcement.”
Finch said mental health providers’ biggest complaint is with the inconsistent funding through the years.
“What I hear from most of our mental health providers is give us a stable funding stream so we can know what we are going to get and work with what that number is,” Finch said. “We need to try to find revenue streams for mental health funding. Medicaid expansion can provide some help. We need to find a sustainable long-term solution.”
A comprehensive transportation plan could be in the offing this session. Finch said transportation funds are needed for projects in the 59th District.
“The last comprehensive transportation package did hurt our district,” he said. “Osage City had a project on 31 highway between the roundabout on U.S. 75 and Osage City that was delayed and may not be get done. We have bridge on Montana Road over I-35 — that will help facilitate the new industrial park — and that is pending KDOT approval. We have a intersection project at Kingman Road and 59 that also will require KDOT to help out.
“There are still projects that matter and those that will bring jobs to our area. Transportation funding will be critical.”
Samsel said transportation is important to the state and District No.5 because of the growth from Kansas City. He said transportation has been a Kansas strong suit and is important for agriculture and a growing business culture.
Finch wants to guard against hurting the economy.
“Our economy is really going well now,” he said. “We are a state of low population compared to a lot of other states, so we have to make sure we are keeping the tax burden as low as possible because we don’t have that many folks that pay. Tax cuts went too far, too fast [before]. Depending on the next administration, we could see spending increases go too far, too fast. Either one of those things is equally bad in terms of outcomes for ordinary Kansans. We have got to make sure we have fiscal discipline towards stability.”
Samsel said it is time to find solutions and put party labels aside to move things forward.
“It is an exciting time to be in Kansas,” he said. “The [election] results are going to show we are ready for new leadership. It is has been very inspiring — not only to run for the first time — but in my home district. I am excited to get to work. I will do my best.”