Kansas lawmakers, officials march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., call for unity

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. March around the statehouse elicited talk of unity and self-reflection to weather hard times, like the pandemic. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — In anticipation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Kansas lawmakers, civil rights advocates and other government officials spoke Thursday of unity among Kansans as a key to weathering challenging times and making positive progress as a state.

Gov. Laura Kelly pointed to the acts of selflessness and teamwork displayed over the COVID-19 pandemic, from front-line health care workers to teachers to spiritual leaders, to show how the principles King held remain prevalent in Kansas today. She said the state’s elected leaders must not only heed that same call to service but work to set an example for all others.

“We can all do more to make our communities better. We can all do more to make each other better,” Kelly said. “We can truly make a difference when we take Dr. King’s lead and choose to stand together in solidarity, mutual respect and commitment to making the world a better place.”

State legislators, members of the governor’s cabinet, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and members of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission were among those who joined Kelly in the annual march around the statehouse to honor King.

Following the march, Kelly proclaimed Jan. 17, 2022, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Kansas. (King was born on Jan. 15, but the day is observed as a holiday on the third Monday in January because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.)

Last year, the march took place online to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the African American Affairs Commission, said King’s words and efforts still ring loud and true today, making the effort to continue his legacy paramount. While toned down or better hidden, many of the same issues of the 1960s remain, she said.

“Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Well today we’re living through a time that certainly rhymes with the turbulence of the 1960s,” Knoell said. “We’re still fighting voter suppression; we’re still fighting for fair redistricting and we’re still fighting for human rights and dignity.”

The greatest gift provided by King was hope, Knoell said, adding that hope remains inside of all who heed his words and follow his example.

Beryl New, chair of the African American Affairs Commission, asked Kansans to look inside themselves and ask questions of their thoughts, opinions and actions. Self-reflection will open a path to creating a better Kansas, she said.

“When we do all of these, Kansas, America, the world will be closer to the vision of the dream that Dr. King had when he looked forward to the day, all God’s children, Black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, can join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last,’ ” New said.

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Kansas Legislature kicks off 2022 session as coronavirus, election-year politics flare

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — The 2022 Legislature convened Monday in Topeka to begin policymaking with election-year politics looming large and coronavirus-related legislation, as well as redistricting, front and center over the coming months.

The 125 representatives and 40 senators will begin committee deliberations this week, hoping to pass legislation Gov. Laura Kelly sees fit to sign. As Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, expect debate on tightening election laws and renewed efforts to undercut vaccine mandates.

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and chairwoman of the House Children and Seniors Committee, said there is a great deal of excitement around working with a budget surplus, something past legislatures often lacked.

“Figuring out where the gaps are in Kansas and where, what and how we can best use that money is a good problem to have,” Concannon said. “I’m looking forward to coming here and passing the budget … and we’ve got some child welfare issues that I’m interested in that I’ve kind of focused on this session.”

State economists projected in November a $2.9 billion surplus, which could grow if tax revenues exceed expectations. Last week, the governor announced Kansas exceeded December estimates for total tax collections by $64.5 million.

In 2021, legislators introduced more than 700 bills and passed more than 100 of them after debate in both chambers and approval from the governor. Leftover legislation, like medical marijuana, will carry over to this year.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the committee she oversees will spend the first few weeks cleaning up past legislation and working on unfinished business from 2021.

“We’re going to look at the numbers as far as what’s happening with enrollment in K-12, as well as the college level,” Baumgardner said. “Next week, my hope is that we’ll have the trailer bill for the Promise Act, to resolve some issues that came up separately, and we’ll start working through the other bills, some of the issues that came up in the interim education meetings and some bills that are left over from last year.”

The Kansas Promise Scholarship Act, which passed the Senate and House, would provide post-secondary educational scholarships for certain two-year associate degrees and technical education programs.

Another looming education issue is critical race theory, even though state and local school boards have repeatedly told legislators that no K-12 school in the state teaches the college-level academic body of work. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said she was looking forward to finally debating the issue.

Faust-Goudeau also pointed to other issues demanding immediate attention from legislators.

“People are still struggling to pay their bills due to loss of jobs with COVID, and I’m especially excited to be back here so we can get a better handle on unemployment issues because I’m still getting phone calls and email and still helping those get in touch with the Department of Labor regarding that issue,” Faust-Goudeau said.

Rep. Boog Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, was less optimistic about the passage of potential legislation that benefits all Kansans but hoped lawmakers could come together on issues like criminal justice reform and efforts to get rid of the food sales tax. He expressed concern with the potential for partisan politics in the redistricting process.

“I think (the legislative session) is going to be a train wreck, and I think it’s going to be highly partisan,” Highberger said. “I want (Kansans) to ask our legislators to be pragmatic rather than ideological and to try to do what’s right, whether it fits your exact preconceptions or not.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2022/01/10/kansas-legislature-kicks-off-2022-session-as-coronavirus-election-year-politics-flare/.

Kansas House panel approves bill to extend executive orders on health care staffing shortages

Extends provisions in the governor’s executive orders

by Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — A Kansas House committee approved legislation Thursday codifying temporary suspension of regulations on health care providers included in the governor’s recent executive orders, sending the bill to the full chamber for debate.

In response to the worsening COVID-19 situation and caseload at many health care sites, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a 15-day executive order last week to authorize expanded practice by some health care professionals and temporarily halted certain requirements at adult care homes. House Bill 2477 would extend these provisions through May 15.

Linda MowBray, president of the Kansas Health Care Association and Kansas Center for Assisted Living, said the executive orders were a lifeline, but 15 days can go by in the blink of an eye. Without these provisions in place, workers facing extended hours may not have someone available to replace them, she said.

“HB 2477 is not the panacea that will solve all of our workforce needs,” MowBray told the House Judiciary Committee. “Instead, it is a much-needed safety net which will allow providers to work together with their associations, agencies, the Legislature and the governor’s office to find and create more permanent solutions to our staffing crisis.”

The panel moved expeditiously to send the bill down the line, passing it out without opposition. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, a brief discussion on the bill yielded no definitive action.

Long-term care facilities and medical providers across the state are reporting a significant number of staff members are falling ill to COVID-19 or simply leaving the field. Some hospitals and nursing homes have shut their doors amid these shortages.

The bill provisions adopted from Kelly’s executive orders would allow nursing staff with a license that lapsed within the past five years to practice medical services. Another section of the bill would allow students enrolled in medical programs and certain qualified military personnel to provide medical assistance.

“The unfortunate reality is the peak of hospitalizations may not have yet been reached,” said Tara Mays, vice president of state government relations for the Kansas Hospital Association. “The extension of these provisions will enable Kansas hospitals to access additional resources as we continue to develop contingency plans that help us address the health care needs of our communities.”

In addition, the bill would allow temporary nurse aides to provide care for residents in nursing homes, allowing fully certified staff to focus on other, potentially more pressing needs within the facilities.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said his mother lives in an assisted care facility in Kansas. The care provided to his mother never diminished during the pandemic despite the long hours and difficult circumstances endured by staff, he said.

“Sadly, I also get notifications for this facility every day that in addition to people being tired and worn-out or leaving the profession and taking higher paying jobs, it seems like every day additional employees are being diagnosed and having to quarantine, as well as certain close contacts,” Carmichael said. “It looks to me like that just massively is complicating the problem.”

Under current law, the governor’s disaster declaration could stand for 15 days. The governor requested that legislators codify the substance of her orders through March, but the bill would extend the provisions until May to be safe.

While there were no opponents to the bill, some stakeholders had concerns with certain provisions or ramifications. Mitzi McFatrich, interim director of Kansas Advocates for Better Care, said the use of temporary nurse aides in long-term care facilities should only serve as an emergency stopgap.

Temporary aides are required to complete only eight hours of online, unsupervised training, while certified aides must undergo 90 hours of classroom and clinical training.

Courtney Cyzman, general counsel for the state Board of Healing Arts, said the one concern was with a provision authorizing licensed health care professionals in good standing in another state to practice that profession in Kansas. The board licenses and regulates many health care professionals in Kansas.

“The way that the board or any regulatory body has jurisdiction over someone is with a license,” Cyzman said. “These individuals who do not have a license (in Kansas) as written in the bill, without clarifying that these people are going to be treated as a licensee pursuant to the Applicable Practice Act, it’s entirely possible that people work in this state and we have no idea who they are.”

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2022/01/13/kansas-house-panel-approves-bill-to-extend-executive-orders-on-health-care-staffing-shortages/