Capitol Update: Rep. Donohoe says state should focus on social services, fixing ‘poor operation’ of KS unemployment office

Rep. Owen Donohoe said he has received countless emails and phone calls from "distressed" Kansans who have not received payments from the Kansas Department of Labor's unemployment office. "This is unacceptable and an issue that must be addressed by the Governor sooner than later," he said. File photo.

Each week, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, Rep. Owen Donohoe, and Sen. Jim Denning are scheduled to send updates this week.

Below is the submission from Rep. Owen Donohoe.

As many of you know, the Kansas legislative session came to a close early due to COVID-19 and we were not able to pass all the legislation that we had hoped to pass this year. In this column, I will highlight the most pressing needs that need priority attention in the next legislative session. As your representative in western Shawnee, I’m prepared to lead the effort to address these unmet needs and remain a good steward of taxpayers’ money.

We must eliminate waiting lists for social services.

I sit on the Social Services Budget Committee and was compiling information to submit to the committee regarding the egregious underfunding of our social services obligations. I was particularly disturbed by the high number of Kansans on various waiting lists pleading for assistance that was not being provided.

Yes, that is correct — there are waiting lists for social services for those who truly and desperately need them, but are not funded. The list is comprised of individuals and the agencies that qualify those individuals. In many cases, our local health departments are statutorily required to be funded and have not had an increase in money from the State General Fund (SGF) since the early 1990s.

So many other areas of the state budget have grown steadily, but this has tragically been unaddressed.

As of January 2020, there were 148 individuals on the waiting list for inpatient admission to the psychiatric residential treatment facilities, 4,117 individuals on the Medicaid Home & Community Intellectual/Developmental Disability Waiver, 985 individuals on the Medicaid Physical Disability Waiver, and 328 individuals on the Medicaid Autism Waiver.

All these programs are Medicaid programs that are currently underfunded by the state. We have other programs such as the Medicaid Technology Assisted Waiver where we have difficulty recruiting and retaining nursing staff due to the low reimbursement for these services.

There is no waiting list with Medicaid Brain Injury Waiver but these individuals are substantially underserved due to the fact the providers are not adequately reimbursed; therefore, the provider network has not expanded adequately.

Infant & Toddler Services (Tiny-K), which provides support for the development of infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families, needs outpace the funding allocated for them as well. Infant and maternal needs that go unnoticed and unmet lead to increased needs for support services later in life.

Mental Health services are also severely underfunded, which includes the Suicide Prevention Program. We have not hired a Suicide Prevention Coordinator nor started implementing national prevention strategy outlined by SAMHSA, the CDC and the federal VA as outlined in the State Suicide Prevention Plan.

My plan is to propose that the first services funded by the legislature are the social services. We need to make sure that our most vulnerable are taken care of prior to making other budget increases or allocations. Once they have been fully funded, we can then move on to other programs. For far too long, we have not prioritized our funding efforts. We have taxpayer-funded programs that hire lobbyists using taxpayer dollars to ensure that they are funded first and often in excess.

The families on the waiting lists have no taxpayer-funded lobbyist lobbying for them, ensuring they are first in line and receive adequate funding; let alone excess funding. It is our job to make sure their voices are heard. My greatest disappointment of having our session shortened was the fact I did not have the opportunity to sponsor legislation requiring the legislature to fund these programs not only first, but fully.

We should eliminate pensions for legislators.

Another bill I would still like to see passed, is eliminating KPERS public pensions for legislators. I have never taken KPERS. I find it unethical to accept a full-time pension for a part-time job, especially when our KPERS is already underfunded. With our upcoming shortfall in the budget due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it becomes even more egregious to take money out of the budget to fill the pockets of legislators rather than fund government

The Governor should address the poor operation of the Kansas unemployment office.

I remain very concerned about the lack of payment to many Kansans of their unemployment benefits. I have received countless emails and phone calls from distressed Kansans that they have not received payments nor been able to get through to anyone. This is unacceptable and an issue that must be addressed by the Governor sooner than later. Please continue to call and write me if you are having issues receiving your benefits.

Kansas should capitalize on opportunities for job growth in key industries.

I also sit on the Rural Revitalization Committee. We have a unique opportunity during these times to capitalize on the current movement to bring back manufacturing and our medical supply chain from China to the United States. We already have a foundation to grow the industry with Bayer Animal Health and the National Bio/Ag Defense Facility in Manhattan being located in Kansas. With our strong Kansas representation in DC with Secretary Pompeo, as well as Senators Roberts and Moran, we should be well positioned to bring opportunities to Kansas. This is something we should be aggressively pursuing.

The Governor played politics with the pandemic response.

May 21 was Sine Die which is the last day of session. We passed the Coronavirus Response Bill HB2054 which dealt with a number of areas of concern regarding the Governor’s powers during a crisis such as the process for Declaration of State of Emergency, limiting the Governor’s powers, providing more local control to counties, legislative oversight of Federal Relief Funds, liability protection and unemployment.
As Attorney General Schmidt writes in his opinion (link below), “This bill does not reduce the state’s ability to protect the health and safety of Kansans – rather, it simply requires that important decisions be made through structured bipartisan collaboration, even while the Legislature is adjourned.

These decisions – such as how best to reopen Kansas and use $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds – affect all Kansans, so it is critical diverse perspectives be represented in this process. Kansas took a similar approach after the 2007 Greensburg tornado and again after the 2008 financial crisis, and current law already requires this sort of check and balance for animal-disease emergencies.”

Rather than sign the bill and provide Kansans with stability and consistency, the Governor chose to veto the bill and call a special session spending more of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. As I mentioned earlier, we still have thousands of Kansans who have not received their unemployment benefits who are struggling to just survive.

The Governor’s actions are doing nothing to resolve this crisis nor helping Kansans get back on their feet. I remain steadfast in my approach to address this crisis by passing good policy and not playing party politics with people’s health or livelihoods. As the state opens up, please be prudent in your safety as you exercise your freedoms.

Explaining my medical condition

Lastly, on a personal note I wanted to point out that I had eye implant surgery. Since then my eyes can be sensitive to light and can become irritated after long days in bright lights. I will sometimes close them while listening to testimony during committee. I realized when a fellow legislator was razzing me about “falling asleep” during committee that it could be perceived that I wasn’t listening…well nothing could be further from the truth. I just got in the habit of closing my eyes when they were irritated. (I even close them to “watch” TV sometimes, unless it’s football of course!) So, rest assured (pun intended) I am not sleeping on the job, nor do I plan on sporting sunglasses during the committee meetings anytime soon.

I look forward to seeing you on the doorsteps over the summer and fall. While we may need to be socially distanced during these times, we can still enjoy a good conversation from your front porch. I know together as Kansans we will overcome the obstacles we are facing and be better for it when we come out the other side.

In your service, Owen Donohoe