OSAWATOMIE – Sen. Caryn Tyson’s voice choked with emotion as she spoke of a man who was about to lose his home because he couldn’t afford to pay property taxes while the state is giving tax money to paint murals.
The incident arose from a state Commerce Department budget report delivered to the Senate Commerce Committee, which includes Republican Senator Parker.
“I was utterly disheartened,” Tyson told the audience during the second installment of the Miami County Legislative Breakfast series held Saturday, Feb. 11, in the Osawatomie High School auditorium. “We were listening to the trade balance report. They were telling us where they were giving out taxpayer money for all these projects across the state and how cool and wonderful it is… then they get to (talking about) giving out money to paint murals.
“I had gotten a call the day before about a gentleman who is literally losing his house – he has to move because of his taxes,” Tyson said. “And… I’m sorry, guys. He suffocates me. Because we make decisions up there (Topeka) that impact people and their lives. And for us to give out money to paint murals while this person is losing their home, it’s heartbreaking.
Tyson said you could hear a pin drop in the room after he voiced his opinion to the committee.
Responding to a question from a veteran who is struggling to pay taxes, Tyson said lawmakers passed legislation last year to freeze property taxes for low-income seniors and disabled veterans.
“The threshold is a $350,000 appraisal on your home, age 65 or older, and your family income must be $50,000 or less,” Tyson said. “We think about it. If you have more than one person in the family, $50,000 is a very low threshold. So, we’re going to try to address that and raise that threshold. It’s a higher percentage on veterans right now. I hope we can address that as well.
Rep. Fred Gardner, a Republican from Garnett, faced a 62-page House Bill (HB 2181) proposing to ban all abortions. The question asked whether Gardner would respect voter wishes to protect women’s reproductive freedom, referring to a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given the legislature more power to regulate abortions that Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected.
“This bill hasn’t made it to our committee yet and I don’t know if it will,” Gardner said. “I am pro-life. And I support life. And I also support mothers. And once we have two lives, we have two lives to protect. I will vote to protect life and not end life with abortion.”
Gardner and Tyson, both representing southern Miami County, took questions from the audience. One question asked whether lawmakers would support medical marijuana passage. The issue passed the House in its last session but died in the Senate.
“I’ve been to at least 10 other countries during my career, and the United States has by far the safest, most medically broad-spectrum supply of drugs of any country I’ve ever been to,” said Gardner, who is a veterinarian by trade.
“Our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done a really outstanding job of keeping us from being hurt by drugs,” Gardner continued. “When you go to the pharmacy and get your medication, you know it’s packaged right, it’s labeled right, you know what’s in the product is exactly what’s on the label or pill bottle. That system in the United States has worked very, very well.”
Gardner said that’s not the case in other countries.
“So why should we, as a group of elected lawmakers, put ourselves in charge of a drug when we’ve hired the Food and Drug Administration to do it, and they’ve done it right,” Gardner said. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.
“To take it into our own hands, where there’s no consistency in the products – the concentration, the packaging, the distribution – if we really want to control pain, we have other things that are much more powerful. And so, I’m not in favor of passing it off as a drug,” she said.
Tyson said he appreciates the FDA position outlined by Gardner.
“It needs to be addressed at the federal level,” Tyson said. “Last year, the Senate president put the bill in a committee of one, so it went nowhere. The House has raised it before, but I’ve heard it was the previous president who supported it, not the current president. So, we may not see that legislation this year.
Tyson said expanding Medicaid has been discussed for years.
“It has to be a fix for Kansas. It can’t be a real expansion of Medicaid,” Tyson said. “This is Obamacare – we can’t afford it.”
Tyson said those who think the state can afford Medicaid expansion need look no further than Iowa, where the state is struggling to pay for the expansion it passed about five years ago.
“Now they have people in the system who don’t want to leave the system, but are having a hard time affording the program,” he said. “So, they’re trying to figure out what to do in Iowa. I think we need to keep an eye on it and see where it lands. We need to find common sense solutions.”
Taking up this point, not just from a financial but a practical standpoint, Gardner said the Kansans need to consider who would benefit from expanding Medicaid.
“We must remember that the Kansas Medicaid program that we have now already covers children 18 and younger up to 250 percent of the poverty line,” Gardner said. “So we wouldn’t be taking any more kids into the system who aren’t eligible now.”
He said the Kansas Medicaid program already covers people over age 65 who are struggling, so no one in that category would be added through Medicaid expansion. The same goes for pregnant women and women for a year after giving birth, she said.
“People with disabilities are covered now. And then there would be no more disabled people brought into the Medicaid system,” Gardner continued.
He acknowledged that some people would benefit from the expansion, but the biggest benefactors would be people between the ages of 18 and 65 who are healthy, able-bodied people who choose not to work full-time.
“If you want to spend tax money on it, that’s fine, but you have to figure out who’s going to benefit,” Gardner said.
The Kansas Health Institute, an impartial news service, estimates that 150,000 people would become eligible under Medicaid expansion, and about 80,000 of those people already have private insurance, Gardner said.
“This isn’t particularly good for our hospital systems,” he said. “According to testimony from the Committee on Health and Human Services (of which she is a member), Medicaid reimburses hospitals at about one-third the rate of private insurance.”
The Kansas Health Institute also estimates that the state’s share of Medicaid expansion would be about $1 billion over the next 10 years, Gardner said, referring to Tyson’s earlier point about the Iowa dilemma.
“… $1 billion over the next 10 years. We have somewhere over a million taxpayers in Kansas — do the math,” she said.
Gardner also debated a House bill that Miami County residents may be interested in due to the county’s continued growth.
“We were dealing with a bill that would eliminate the three-mile area around municipalities where municipalities may have zoning and planning control, but are not yet part of the municipality,” Gardner said. “They can put utilities in those areas.”
Currently, if someone lives within the growth area and wants to build a chicken coop, for example, or any type of building, they may be visited by a city inspector who will advise them that they need a city permit to build the structure and will have to pay a permit fee and possibly a fine for building that chicken coop without a permit, Gardner said.
He said it can irritate rural residents who live in the county but within a community’s growth area.
“It can get pretty controversial,” Gardner said. “But then the municipalities say you know we’re going to grow and we need to get things in order so that when these areas are annexed we can have orderly growth: utilities and roads and curbs and reasonable building codes and compliance so we can have community where people will want to live.
Gardner said that, in his view, it is up to communities to make sure they elect good local city and council officials who can work together and make informed decisions about the future of the areas they serve.
He said the House Local Government Committee he sits on is expected to vote on the bill soon. Gardner did not say which side he was leaning on at the moment.
“A lot of opinions on both sides have been expressed very well,” Gardner said.