The state’s few metropolitan counties and its vast rural stretches are set apart by contrasting landscapes, divergent lifestyles and disparate cultures. But their people hold many mutual concerns, chief among them health care and local taxes.
On these topics, House Speaker Dan Hawkins and Senate President Ty Masterson seem to hold dark beliefs: First, that Kansans don’t know what’s best for them despite the polls and how they vote. Second, that local governments are wasteful and not to be trusted with state aid, as though Topeka’s money came from some distant paymaster.
Since last summer, Hawkins and Masterson have repeatedly opposed renewing the state’s dormant property tax relief fund. The pair, both Wichita Republicans, said cities and counties squandered the money when the fund was active and would waste it again.
For the past 20 years, the legislature has denied more than $1.5 billion in tax relief owed to cities and counties and ordered each year by state law. The money, now more than $120 million annually, belongs to the Local Ad Valorem Tax Relief fund, framed in statutes that date to 1937, reinforced in the 1960s and enhanced in 1992.
Legislators for decades complied with the law, known as a “demand transfer.” It requires that 3.63 percent of state sales tax revenues be returned to local governments to stabilize and reduce local property levies, a payback to cities and counties for acting as a tax collector.
The legislature has suspended the transfer each year since 2003. Advocates, including governors, have repeatedly asked lawmakers to adhere to law and share the revenue. Each year, the answer was no.
In September Hawkins said the tax relief fund had “failed miserably” and that counties had used it as a “slush fund.”
Masterson said the fund “never worked as intended.” Most local governments, he said in a statement, “failed to use the money to reduce property taxes, but rather used it to spend more money.”
How interesting. Neither was in Topeka when the fund was active. Hawkins was elected to the House in 2013. Masterson came to the House in 2005 and went to the Senate in 2009. During the dark Brownback years (2011-2017) they helped sluice money away from cities, counties and schools and into tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals. This led to yawning budget deficits that drove the state toward bankruptcy.
How odd, their lectures on thrifty government.
Recent polls show that at least 70 percent of Kansans favor Medicaid expansion. Hawkins and Masterson respond with tired myths about welfare cheats and able-bodied louts, socialism infecting the system.
In September they said Medicaid expansion would “extend services to able-bodied adults who either choose not to work or are already eligible for a free or reduced private health care plan.”
Masterson called Gov. Laura Kelly’s recent push for expansion as the “Governor’s Welfare Express Tour.”
Topeka and Washington finance KanCare to provide health coverage for about 400,000 Kansas children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities. All are poor, some desperately so.
Medicaid expansion would cover about 150,000 Kansans who make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. Kansas is one of 10 states that refuse to join the program. The cost to
expand coverage is about $1.3 billion annually, Washington covering 90 percent.
Over nine years, Kansas has refused nearly $7 billion in expansion funding. Meanwhile hospitals close ‒ recently Herington and Ft. Scott ‒ and others plunge deeper in red ink or close altogether. The sick and injured without insurance are treated in emergency rooms, squeezing both rural and urban hospitals.
While Masterson, 54, and Hawkins, 63, say expansion is free welfare and “socialism”, they enjoy gold-plated, state-financed legislative health insurance. (They have also recently engineered a fat pay and pension increase for themselves and their colleagues).
Local tax relief and health care are among issues that expose the more venal ranks in Topeka. They are concerns shared among Kansans who ‒ unlike some legislators ‒ place mutual interest above self-interest.