by Mary Rupert
STAR bonds and the food sales tax topped the proposed Unified Government legislative agenda priorities.
In a discussion Nov. 17, UG commissioners and state legislators told of a need to keep STAR bonds as they are, and they also believed that Wyandotte County residents would benefit greatly from an expedited reduction on the food sales tax.
The UG Commission will take up the priority list again at a future meeting to determine its top legislative issues.
A possible challenge to the STAR bond districts, which relies partly on sales tax not getting cut away, would leave Wyandotte County’s STAR bond district more vulnerable, according to Alan Howze, assistant county administrator.
UG Commissioner Tom Burroughs, who served in the House from 1997 through 2022 until deciding not to run again this year, said the impact of STAR bonds for Wyandotte County has made it extremely important to keep the momentum going. There will be a request to change it, and he said every change could have an effect on what Wyandotte County has accomplished so far and will accomplish moving forward.
A lot of people want STAR bonds to meet the project, but don’t want the project to meet the criteria of STAR bonds, Burroughs said.
“That is something that has been very important to this community,” Burroughs said.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D – 6th District, said she was glad expedited elimination of the food sales tax was No. 1 on the UG’s agenda, and the governor is backing it.
“I’m sure every legislator running for office has heard at the door that food costs are going up. It should be at the top of the Wyandotte County agenda. Our citizens would all benefit from that,” she said.
Next on the list was expanded development financing tools.
Rep. Pam Curtis, D-32nd Dist., said last year she worked through legislation that expanded financing tools. The development tools often applied to rural communities.
The city of Topeka made its entire city eligible for housing assistance, something that should be considered for Kansas City, Kansas, she added.
Rural and economically challenged urban areas share a lot of the same challenges, Rep. Curtis said. Their approaches might be different, but there would be no reason to separate them geographically in proposed legislation, she said.
As jobs are created in the state, money is set aside for workforce housing for those earning $60,000 to $80,000, she said. Rural communities have a pot of money to help them while urban areas may want to have the same sort of economic development tools.
Childcare and pre-kindergarten expansion also is on the list this year. The Wyandotte Economic Development Council has cited a need for it because of the barrier it creates for job creation, Howze said.
Sen. Pettey said Wyandotte County is in a desperate situation for child care affordability. She is working on a committee with Commissioner Andrew Davis planning strategies around addressing the problem.
The problem isn’t just in Wyandotte County, where it’s severe, but it’s also statewide, she said.
Rep. Curtis said a business child care tax credit was added last year for employers and employees, but the child care work force also has to contract with them.
Medicaid expansion and foster care
Medicaid expansion, a topic that seems to come up every year, is fourth on the UG’s list. Sen. Pettey said it’s needed and the governor will support it again this year.
Fifth on the list was foster care support for those who are 18 or older and aging out of foster care. Proposed legislation would provide stronger supports for this age group as they move into adulthood.
Other items on the legislative list were drug paraphernalia definitions, and substance abuse treatments, especially important with Wyandotte County losing a major facility, the Mirror Inc. Also listed as priorities were clean slate automated expungement, and mental health concerns.
Mental health and the homeless
Commissioner Melissa Bynum said mental health concerns are important with many homeless residents dealing with mental illness or substance abuse.
She said they are seeing an increase in the homeless numbers, and it was already a pretty serious issue before the pandemic.
Funding the public defender’s office, reducing violence, extreme risk protection orders and alternative revenue sources also were listed as priorities.
The protection order would allow law enforcement to take a firearm from a person deemed a risk to self and others, then after due process, to give the firearms back.
An earnings tax was discussed under alternative revenue sources.
Rep. Curtis said the earnings tax idea had not been successful in the past. What they should be doing is funding revenue sources that are there now, she said.
Commissioner Bynum said the state removed the machinery and equipment tax years ago, lowering revenues for cities.
Sen. Pettey said she was on the UG Commission when the commission supported an e-tax, but she doesn’t think it has any legs in the Legislature. Everyone campaigning has heard people complain mostly about taxes, she said.
Commissioner Chuck Stites agreed that people are talking about how high their tax bills are now and how they can reduce them.
Money that has been taken away from local governments over the past 10 years was supposed to have been reimbursed, starting that payment back, Burroughs said. But anything to do with an earnings tax would be met with scrutiny, according to Burroughs.
An e-tax involves people driving into the community to work in jobs here, then driving out of the community when they get off work without paying taxes – the earnings tax would try to tax people who don’t live here but who hold some of the highest paying jobs here.
“Members to the south now have the largest voting bloc in the caucus,” Burroughs said. “Even if our community wanted it, it would be a difficult lift.”
Another of the priorities on the proposed list would try to get the UG some funding from the sports wagering bill that passed. Unlike the casino gaming revenue funds, the local governments were not cut in on the sports wagering proceeds. Instead, under the law a portion of the money went to creating a professional sports fund that would attempt to lure pro teams to Kansas.
Commissioner Mike Kane advocated for the prevailing wage, and said it must be moved up on the list.
Issues with medical cannabis
Legalization of medical cannabis was down toward the end of the priority list. Sen. David Haley, D-4th Dist., said he was concerned with the issues.
With surrounding states legalizing marijuana, it can put Kansas law enforcement officers in a difficult position to enforce a law no one else has on its books, he said.
Mayor Tyrone Garner said the legal team and district attorney have discussed the situation, and were looking at depenalization similar to a Wichita proposal
Residents have to be careful not to be trapped by a bridge to a felony, he said. If Wyandotte County is easy on a first offense, other counties may not be as lenient with the penalties. A third penalty, from another county, could put a felony on a person’s record. A felony for possession where it’s legal in two neighboring states needs a second look, he said.
Commissioner Andrew Davis supported legalization at the state level. It won’t be a question of too much longer, as half the country is there now, he believes.
Property tax relief
Also discussed were the golden years property tax relief for senior citizens. Rep. Curtis said there was a property freeze circuitbreaker bill passed with a maximum refund of $2,500 on property taxes paid by those 65 or older, disabled veterans, for households earning less than $50,000. Not all senior citizens would qualify. Information about such a program will be going out to people in January to March 31, according to UG officials..
Commissioner Christian Ramirez supported fully funding education and special education. Students need resources and full funding, he said.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-34th Dist. said that unfortunately there will be attempts to change the definitions or add definitions in state statutes that currently exist.
“You don’t like something, you do a little voodoo math,” she said.
She invited people to participate in upcoming hearings. There are real examples of costs not being covered, she said. The gifted are considered special education and will be affected as well as other special education students.
This year, there are more new faces in the Wyandotte County legislative delegation with the retirement of some long-time representatives.
Paul Davis, the UG’s lobbyist, said the next session of the Legislature in Topeka will be similar to last year. While there’s always change with every election, Topeka will look pretty similar with the same governor, a couple different statewide officeholders, and the composition of the Legislature will be pretty much the same as it has been before. Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration will set the agenda, present the budget and set the baseline.
The governor most likely will propose moving up the elimination of the sales tax on food on her agenda, but there are likely some priorities they have yet to hear about, he added.
Other issues were discussed at the legislative priorities meeting, and can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUDZ7rHeYjM.