JoCo’s ‘wish list’ for 2021 in Topeka includes Medicaid expansion and tax breaks for low-income seniors

Johnson County commissioners approved a platform of priorities to lobby for during the 2021 legislative session in Topeka, including Medicaid expansion and tax breaks for low-income seniors.

The Johnson County Commission has approved its “wish list” of items it would like to see the Kansas Legislature work on in 2021, including a continued call for expanding Medicaid, a comprehensive transportation plan and broader eligibility for property tax breaks for low-income seniors.

Commissioners voted 4-3 last week to support the five-page list of items on the county’s legislative platform.

Even with the vote, several commissioners admitted the county is unlikely to see many of its priorities addressed following the results of November’s election, which saw the makeup of the state legislature remain essentially unchanged and conservative Republicans strengthen their hold on leadership in both chambers.

Medicaid expansion, in particular, has come up repeatedly in Topeka in recent years but has never been accomplished. The move has been proposed by state lawmakers in various versions since 2017, and it finally seemed to have a chance with a bipartisan effort backing it last year, only to be blocked by Republican leaders in the state Senate.

The commission’s priority list for 2021 also includes:

  • an ask for a way to collect sales taxes from online purchases
  • an extension of the three-day postmark grace period on mailed election ballots
  • adequate funding for the Osawatomie State Hospital and an end to the moratorium on admissions there
  • opposition to the “dark store” method of commercial real estate valuation, and
  • “thoughtful consideration” of the reduction of sales tax on food and medicine.

Also on the list is increased funding for mental health services and the repeal of two 2016 laws that remove some local control over cell tower placement and zoning and rental licensing inspections.

Doubts about county platforms’ use

State and federal legislative platforms are an annual event for many local governments. As the commission was getting ready to vote this year, Commissioner Steve Klika — who did not run for reelection and will not be on the commission next year — wondered what was the use, given the reception of past platforms.

“How many of our items have every really made it through? Very few,” he said.

At an earlier meeting, commissioners heard from lobbyists John Federico and Stephen Duerst that despite intense interest, a high voter turnout and lots of campaign spending, the basic makeup of the legislature has changed very little.

The Senate still has 29 Republicans and 11 Democrats, just as before the election, and in the House the parties picked up two seats apiece.

The makeup within the Republican ranks has become more conservative, and the Democrats have become a bit more progressive, Federico said.

“I have a feeling the legislature is going to have a different agenda than what we have in mind,” Klika said, adding that he fears the exercise was a waste of county staff’s time.

However, Chairman Ed Eilert said the document is useful for defending the county against legislation that could have a negative effect.

Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson said having an agenda gives county staff a clear idea of what issues they need to be keeping track of and which committee hearings they need to attend.

Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said he was uncomfortable with the high expectations for state funding the county is asking for in 2021, considering that next year promises to be an unusual session with the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Klika, Ashcraft and Mike Brown voted against the agenda. The document can be found here.