Johnson County safety net advocates paint picture of challenging times amid Kansas budget shortfall

Duane Goosen of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth at Monday’ Public Policy Forum put on by United Community Services of Johnson County.

A trio of advocacy organization leaders on Monday painted a bleak picture of Johnson and Wyandotte County’s social services safety net amid the state’s budget crisis. But the head of United Community Services of Johnson County — the agency that coordinates health and human services programming in the area — said she’s somewhat heartened by the fact that there’s such broad consensus among agencies, advocates and legislators about the challenges facing the area.

“They’re consistent in their message, and they’re all collaboratively seeing the same picture,” UCS’s Julie Brewer said after Monday’s Public Policy forum, which the group co-hosted with the United Way. “So that’s good news — when you have legislators who have come together and they’re seeing the issues the same way and want to work toward a resolution, that’s a huge step.”

Kansas Center for Economic Growth Senior Fellow Duane Goossen, a seven-term member of the Kansas House who was the budget director under three governors, opened the forum by explaining the severity of Kansas’s budget troubles in the wake of the 2012 tax cuts. The state faces a $340 million budget hole for the current fiscal year — and systemic imbalances that will yield large shortfalls for years to come. Unfortunately, he said, there is little left in the state’s budget to cut, and additional reductions in funding for state services would take a toll on the most vulnerable populations.

“[Fixing the budget hole] with cuts would be terribly, terribly damaging,” he said.

Goossen was followed by Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project, and Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Kids.

Weisgrau told the audience of agency staffers and more than 15 elected officials that Kansas’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act had been both a budget and a service disaster. Not only would expansion have been at least budget neutral for Kansas over a ten year period, but it would have provided funding that would have given more poor people in Johnson County access to care. Weisgrau said estimates suggest expansion of Medicaid would have resulted in $45 million in additional funds for healthcare spending in Johnson County alone, and the creation of 300 new healthcare jobs here. He said the current Republican plans to repeal and eventually replace the ACA would create tremendous uncertainty among insurers, and may lead to a further reduction in the number of companies willing to offer plans on the ACA marketplace in the near term.

McCay focused in part on how recent changes in state law weakened the effectiveness of temporary financial aid programs by making it harder to access and use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. She said laws that weaken Kansas’s safety net harm the state’s youngest citizens by reducing their families’ access to assistance that could get them through hard times.

The forum also included a panel of four northeast Kansas legislators, Sens. Barbara Bollier and Pat Pettey, and Reps. Kathy Wolfe Moore and Melissa Rooker.

Brewer said the cohesion of the elected officials and the agency heads was a positive sign for addressing the state’s safety net challenges in the coming years.

“The legislators are hearing from the agencies, who are working frontline with investing in health and human services that make sure that our…communities are thriving,” she said. “They can address the health and human service issues and find resolution and work with policymakers to make sure that not only are the dollars there, which is difficult in our current budget environment, but also that access is available.