By JOHN JARED HAWKS

Herald Staff Writer

With no shortage of issues occupying the current Kansas Legislative session, Saturday morning’s Legislative Coffee was filled to bursting, both in attendance and talk time. The Ottawa Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event was hosted at Ottawa City Hall and featured Reps. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, and Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker. The statehouse delegates gave session updates and were asked questions on a broad range of topics, front and center of which were state funding for mental health services and education.

Ed funding budget-breaking

The current school funding debate is centered around Senate Bill 142, the Legislature’s latest attempt to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court mandate for adequate funding, a product of the long-running Gannon v. State of Kansas lawsuit. The bill has been passed by the Senate and is now in the House, and would add $90 million a year to education spending.

Though different in their approaches, Franklin County lawmakers all portrayed the situation as out-of-control.

“Over 60% of the state’s budget currently goes toward K-12 education and higher education,” Tyson said. “We are to the point where other priorities and other needs in our state are suffering as a result.”

The senator advocated for greater spending oversight, and also more local spending control.

“We need to ask ourselves where the money is going, is it getting to the classroom, is it getting to the teachers, how is the money being spent,” she said. “We need to allow the locals to spend where they need to, free up the money.”

Samsel argued for the Legislature retaining control over funding practices.

“It is the legislature and not the courts that are the best situated to decide how education funding should best be spent. That’s not because we’re smarter, it’s because we are most responsive to the people and your needs,” Samsel said. “I’m a firm believer that we need to get this lawsuit over with. Let’s decide this through vigorous debate in the people’s house, not in the court system.”

Finch decried the Gannon case’s plaintiffs’ recent decision to ask for more funding, far and above current legislation.

“On Feb. 6 they showed up and testified ‘We’ll be happy with that, we’ll take that and end the litigation.’ And then two weeks later they change their mind and decided that wasn’t enough, they wanted four times that much,” Finch said. “They want this to be $360 million more, [instead of $90 million].”

The requested change would amount to 1.8 billion in new spending for K-12 education, Finch said, adding the change would be unsustainable for the state.

“If that were to pass, the total amount spent on K-12 in 2023 would be equal to the total tax receipts of the state of Kansas in 2014,” Finch said. “Every dollar that we collected in taxes in 2014 would be equal to the amount we would be spending on one section of our state budget. That is not sustainable.” 

Mental health services declining

Citing declining state mental health resources and statistics showing Kansas as having one of the higher rates of suicide in the nation, a coffee attendee questioned the legislators over their efforts to combat growing concern on the issue. The legislators responded with their efforts concerning mental health in schools. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for the 15 to 24-year-olds in Kansas.

“One out of four of us is affected by a mental health issue; it does not discriminate,” Samsel said. “Yesterday we had constituents from Senator Tyson and I’s district from the Iola area. We learned of a young lady at Crest High School who committed suicide last year. She was a 4.0 student, and extremely successful. We failed when it comes to mental health. We weren’t able to get in proactively enough and address those issues.”

Samsel believes increasing spending on mental health services aligns with fiscally conservative ideology, giving an example of a suicidal person situation.

“Our law-enforcement, our ambulance and medical staff become involved,” he said. “Hopefully we are able to save the person, but from there they are often in the jail cell for many days at taxpayer expense, and then we send them through our court system to figure out what we are going to do. And then if they end up in Osawatomie State Hospital, staff would be the first to tell you that outcomes aren’t very good right now. We use medication to get them to a point where we send them back to our local facilities, and all of that cost a ton of taxpayer money, and for not very good results.”

Finch also argued for preventative spending, especially in the school system.

“We’ve talked in terms of school finance about knowing where the dollars are going, and the priority we need to place on some other areas, including mental health,” said Finch. “I’ve been part of passing two bills in the last two sessions trying to help the mental health situation. First was the EOT Bill, Emergency Observation Treatment or what we call ‘crisis intervention.’

We followed it up the next year with the Juvenile Crisis Intervention Bill, which moved $2 million in funding from cost savings that we had realized because of juvenile justice reform, to try and jumpstart [transition] centers.”

Another bill last session introduced a pilot program to embed mental health professionals in some of the state’s larger school districts -- none in Franklin County -- in ways similar to existing school resource officers.

“The house version of the school finance bill expands that program this year,” Finch said. “This puts mental health professionals inside schools and split the cost, so that we get young people to treatment and access to the mental health services that they need.”

In terms of the broader scope of the state’s mental health services, Finch discussed the need for regional transition facilities for individuals exiting state hospital care.

“When we spoke last to the Osawatomie State Hospital staff, they told us the real issue is transition facilities,” Finch said. “How do we take people who have been in crisis, who have received care and treatment at Osawatomie and are stabilized, and they want to release them back into the community. We don’t have transition facilities to help move people from that acute crisis moment to working their way back into life on a regular basis, so a lot of times they are just released. There is no transition facility to make sure they are stabilize long-term.”

Creating those facilities around the state is an incredible investment that has to be made. You can see why when we have the kind of pressures on our budget that one is to put $1 billion in one area, it is hard to fine what would likely be tens of millions of dollars that we would need for a program like that. I do believe the future of mental health care in our state is regional. It’s not going to be to state hospitals, it’s going to be multiple facilities around the state where people can get treatment.

“It will take much more than all of that – it will take a large influx of cash to help the mental health system.”