Recent Kansas editorials
The Topeka Capital-Journal, June 8
State employees were never the enemy
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt and The Kansas Employees Health Care Commission should be commended for their decision last week to reduce contributions from state employees for their insurance coverage or keep them flat.
The action followed years of mismanagement of the state’s insurance fund — although mismanagement might be the incorrect word. Bear with us.
What exactly did the state do? Topeka Capital-Journal Statehouse reporters Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith laid it out in a story from June 1:
“During the past five years, the state’s contribution to the state employee health insurance account climbed a total of 8.5 percent. Premium payments by state employees with policies that included spouse or family ballooned 115.5 percent in that period — 36.7 percent in 2016, 30.4 percent in 2017, 31.7 percent in 2018 and 16.7 percent in 2019. Premium increases for state retirees in the health insurance system went up 74.1 percent.”
At the same time, reserves in the state’s health fund dropped from a robust $195 million in 2014 to a paltry $24 million in 2017.
It’s easy to blame former governor Sam Brownback’s signature tax policy, and the resulting deficits, for this problem. It’s easy to say this is a consequence of mismanagement or incompetence or desperation.
But it might be more accurate to say that these problems were also part and parcel of a theory of government held by the previous administration: that state employees were disposable, that their service and livelihoods were liabilities rather than advantages and that the more people who left state service the better.
After all, the previous administration championed privatization. It outsourced state jobs and laid off workers. This was not about efficiency or prudent use of resources — many of the moves ended up costing the state money — it had the appearance of an ideological quest against state government itself.
Taken in this context, the insurance changes of the past years look even worse. We can never know if the changes were explicitly meant to drive workers away. But it’s nearly certain that they did so. It’s nearly certain that talented, dedicated, caring public servants left their jobs because they couldn’t afford to keep their health insurance.
That’s deeply unfortunate. The actions taken last week are a move toward rectifying the situation, but much remains to be done throughout Kansas government.
State employees should know, once and for all, that they aren’t the enemy. They are valued members of the team.
The Kansas City Star, June 6
Gov. Laura Kelly shouldn’t use a loophole to undermine Republican lawmakers
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration says it has found a way to provide extended food assistance to adults who can’t meet the state’s work requirements.
Kelly’s goal is laudable. Kansas lawmakers deserve criticism for humiliating the poor with punitive laws and regulations, including an aggressive work requirement. No one wants to be poor, or avoids work to pick up food assistance worth about $110 a month.
Overly stringent work requirements for public benefits in Kansas are meant to punish the poor, not to help them.
But Kansans should be worried whenever a governor uses a regulation or loophole to overturn the clear intent of the Legislature, and that’s what is happening here. Republicans are right to criticize the governor’s approach.
The issue has arisen because the state caps nutrition benefits for able-bodied adults at three months over a 36-month period, unless the client is working or undergoing job training. That’s the federal standard.
The law also prohibits the state from seeking a federal waiver for more generous benefits or beginning a different program to avoid the work requirement.
In a memo dated May 17, though, the Kansas Department for Children and Families said the state had accumulated 58,000 federally-authorized exemptions that allow for extended benefits for clients who aren’t working. The state will use those exemptions to “extend food assistance eligibility,” according to the memo.
Republicans understandably have reacted with frustration. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins called the decision a direct violation of state statutes: “It’s appalling that the Kelly administration would attempt to undermine legislative intent and Kansas law,” he said in a statement.
The Department for Children and Families insists that using the exemptions isn’t the same as a waiver or a new program, so it fits within the law’s framework. The courts may end up determining the legality of the maneuver.
Kelly’s own opposition to strict work requirements for nutrition benefits is clear, and our support for her view remains intact. But the way to loosen those requirements is through a new law, not a regulatory loophole.
To understand this, reverse the situation: What would the reaction be if a Republican governor imposed work requirements for nutrition benefits, in contradiction of a state law prohibiting them? Kansans would be angry, and they’d have a right to be.
If the governor wants to convince Kansans to make food assistance more generous, she should argue that case. Kansas lawmakers are far too interested in hurting the poor, and Kelly is on the right side of this issue.
But the ends don’t justify the means. Using a loophole to reach a policy goal sets a dangerous precedent that future governors could exploit on other issues.
Kelly should rescind the order and then convince the Legislature to change the law.