Capitol Update: Acknowledging Kansas ‘has its work cut out for it,’ Rep. Gallagher says she’s optimistic Kansas can solve budget riddle

Photo via Rep. Gallagher on Facebook.
Photo via Rep. Gallagher on Facebook.

Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, Rep. Linda Gallagher and Sen. Jim Denning are scheduled to send updates this week. Here’s Rep. Gallagher’s filing:

Although the second week of the legislative session was a short one with the Legislature not meeting on either Monday, Jan. 15, in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, or Friday, Jan. 19, due to a Pro Forma day, nevertheless the pace in the Capitol picked up on the other days of the week. With most committees meeting; numerous breakfast, lunch and dinner events; and various groups visiting the Statehouse for advocacy days, my daily schedule was packed. I serve on the following committees: Children and Seniors (vice-chair), Social Services Budget, Transportation, Government Technology and Security, and the Child Welfare System Task Force.

One of the things I find most interesting about being a legislator is the wide variety of topics and issues we learn about and discuss each day. In the course of one day this past week, I devoted my attention to the following topics: the need for supportive housing for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders; sexual harassment prevention training; cybersecurity and utilities; recent IT security audits of Larned State Hospital and Fort Hays State University; issues facing the Area Agencies on Aging; an update on Children’s Mercy Hospital of Kansas and issues with KanCare; the Kansas Safe Access Act, a bill to legalize use of cannabis for medical conditions; autonomous vehicles; the state of the Kansas Judiciary; updates on Osawatomie State Hospital recertification efforts and Larned State Hospital plan of correction; and an overview of the Legislative Mental Health Task Force Report.

Here is more information and my thoughts on some of these topics:

  • At a legislative breakfast, leaders with the mental and behavioral health agencies of Johnson, Douglas, Shawnee and Wyandotte Counties presented opportunities to expand the availability of supportive housing for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders. Today, there are more people living in our communities with a higher acuity of mental health needs. A broader and deeper continuum of care, including supported housing, is needed to adequately serve and help these individuals be successful in less institutional settings.
  • House members attended sexual harassment prevention training provided by the YWCA of Topeka, an important and necessary follow-up to the #metoo movement that began last fall and spotlighted sexual harassment in the Kansas Legislature. I welcome the recommendations made by the Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation to guide us in addressing this problem. There should be zero tolerance of sexual harassment of or by anyone in the Capitol – legislators, staff, interns, lobbyists or visitors.
  • The Johnson County Delegation had its first weekly lunch meeting last week, where representatives from Children’s Mercy Hospital gave an overview of the hospital and its Kansas facility in Overland Park, as well as problems it faces in dealing with KanCare.
  • The House Transportation Committee devoted two meetings last week to the subject of autonomous vehicles. One committee member likened it to going from “The Flintstones” to “The Jetsons.” There are five levels of autonomy in autonomous vehicles. We are currently at level 3 with new technology in many vehicles, including sensors, cameras and automatic braking. It is believed that autonomous vehicles will be much safer since 94% of all vehicle accidents are caused by driver error or inattentiveness.
    Widespread use of level 5, fully autonomous vehicles is expected by 2035. This has implications for all sorts of things – ride sharing, transportation infrastructure and parking needs of the future, the ability of elderly and disabled people who currently can’t get a driver’s license to be more mobile, vehicle-to-vehicle data sharing, etc. Among the people testifying to the committee on these topics was a representative of the Mid-America Regional Council, who said MARC has a task force working on planning for a future with autonomous vehicles in the Greater Kansas City area.
  • Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss addressed a joint session of the House and Senate on Jan. 17 to discuss the state of the Kansas Judiciary. As he did last year, Nuss presented some very concerning statistics about the low pay of staff members and judges serving in the Judicial Branch. Turnover is very high among court clerks and other staff, many of whom must work a second job to make ends meet because their wages from the state put them below the federal poverty level. This continues to be the case even after Judicial Branch employees were given a 2 ½% raise in the budget passed last spring. Nuss warned that court officials have difficulty finding enough qualified people to apply for open positions, creating the potential for administration of justice across the state to be hampered significantly.

Some legislators think Nuss showed a lot of nerve in asking the legislature for more money for Judicial Branch pay raises after the Supreme Court ruled in the Gannon case that we must appropriate more money for K-12 schools. I don’t share that view. The woefully inadequate funding for both the Judicial Branch and public schools are a result of the failed, reckless tax policies of the Brownback administration. The Legislature took significant steps last spring to correct the state’s critical budget situation with the passage of SB 30, the tax reform bill. But it was just a first step in putting Kansas back on the right path. It is going to take years to dig out of the financial hole we were in over the past several years.

Meanwhile, we must figure out how to come up with significantly more money for schools while also addressing critical funding needs in several other core functions of state government – child welfare and other social services, prisons, the KPERS retirement system, higher education, and others. The Legislature certainly has its work cut out for it again this year. While it isn’t yet clear how we will do what needs to be done, I am optimistic that we can do it. We showed last year what can be done when legislators work together across party lines and factions for the common good of Kansas and its citizens.

Also last week, the House Children & Seniors Committee had an informational hearing on long-term care issues affecting seniors in Kansas. Various conferees discussed an ongoing workforce crisis in the long-term care industry, a significant gap between the actual cost of care and the Medicaid reimbursement providers receive, costly fines being assessed to care facilities for infractions, and a shortage of nursing facility inspectors at the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services. Fewer people are entering the nursing field, and turnover is extremely high in long-term care facilities. Recruitment and retention of employees is a growing problem that threatens to endanger the care of some of our most vulnerable citizens. The Children & Seniors Committee will be digging deeper into these and other issues this session.

Last session, I introduced a bill, HB 2232, in the Children and Seniors Committee that would allow residents of adult care homes or their guardian to install electronic monitoring equipment (video and/or audio) in their room at their own expense. The bill includes guidelines for the monitoring, addresses the privacy rights of a resident and anyone sharing their room, and provides protections for the residents and adult care homes. The House passed the bill last spring on a vote of 124-1.

Last week, the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee had a hearing on the bill. I testified in favor, along with several other proponents. The committee took no action on HB 2232 the day of the hearing. I introduced the legislation at the request of the Alzheimer’s Association and out of concern for the safety and welfare of the residents of long-term care facilities. Electronic monitoring can help to prevent abuse of patients by caregivers and alert family or designated representatives when a patient falls or is in some other kind of distress, leading them to notify the facility that the patient needs attention.

Over the summer and fall, I worked with others to help get the Child Welfare System Task Force up and running. It met monthly from August through December and is slated to meet at least six times this year. The task force formed three working groups to involve more stakeholders in the child welfare system and to dig deeper into various aspects of the system. I am vice chair of a working group on reintegration and permanency placement. The working groups met monthly from October through December and will continue meeting this year. The task force issued a preliminary report to the Legislature this month and will present its final report on findings and recommendations in January 2019.

Here is a link to the preliminary report of the Child Welfare System Task Force. It is an honor to represent District 23 and Johnson County in the House of Representatives. I welcome hearing from people about issues important to them. My office is in 187-N and my office phone number is 785-296-7482. I can be reached at linda.gallagher@house.ks.gov.