3 wishes from regular Kansans as lawmakers head back to work

Sweden Creme employees (from left) Lisa Anderson, Lilly Hartman, Ana Mendez and Kaylee Hadle in a December Facebook post announcing the dining room is open. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The second Monday in January always means one thing in Kansas: Back to work for 125 representatives, 40 senators and one governor, who’ll carry out the annual exercise of their constitutional duties — that is, fighting over abortion and taxes.

But it’ll be just another Monday for most of the state’s 2.9 million people, most of whom have other priorities between now and whenever warm weather heralds the end of the session: staying alive, supporting themselves financially, educating their kids and maybe sleeping at night.

I’ve spent the past six months listening to regular Kansans tell me about their lives, so I checked in with three to ask: What’s one thing you wish the Legislature would do for Kansas?

“We need to make sure that we are funding the resources necessary to address the mental health needs of our education community,” said Tabatha Rosproy, who was named National Teacher of the Year on the same day as the session ended last May.

Now halfway through her term, Rosproy has spoken with people, organizations and policymakers all over the country.

“The pandemic made an impact on students, families and teachers in ways we didn’t anticipate,” Rosproy said.

“Before, it was easy for members of the legislature to feel distanced from schools,” she said. “Now that most people have had the experience of being a family that has children living at home or with another caregiver, I think they can see what impact it has had on their mental health.”

An informal mental health effort was underway out in Mankato.

“We are trying to stay positive in our little corner of the world,” said Karla Fleming, the general manager and one owner of the Sweden Crème diner.

“COVID cases in Jewell County have multiplied rapidly in the past month and we have had more deaths,” she said in late December.

Fleming and her staff installed a drive-through and expanded delivery service over the summer, but winter is their slowest time of year and Fleming said they felt the need to re-open their dining room.

“What I want the Kansas Legislature to understand is that small businesses will continue to struggle,” Fleming said. “We have made changes to our business to keep us open during this pandemic and we avoided having our employees go on unemployment. Even though we were able to get our sales up, our main costs went up significantly.”

Staying open meant paying more for employees, for the online ordering system, for advertising and for food itself, which was sometimes in short supply, she said.

“The cost of hamburger at one point this year more than tripled for a month or so, and for a restaurant who is known for its burgers, this is significant,” Fleming said.

She said they would keep changing and adapting and having faith.

“What is the answer? I don’t know,” she said.

Except that she did.

“The state should look at more than reduced sales when considering assistance for small businesses,” Fleming said.

“Under a reduced sales approach, a restaurant who closed for three months and all of its employees went on unemployment will be eligible for assistance,” she explained. However, “a restaurant who struggled to keep its doors open, continued to have sales, and avoided employees going on unemployment, while also experiencing significantly more input expenses, would not be eligible for assistance.”

Surely legislators could do something about that?

Because they absolutely will not fulfill the wish of Santiago Vasquez, who struck me as the embodiment of America’s promise when we spoke before the November election. He’d just started his first semester at the University of Kansas; last week he said he’d done well, finishing with As and Bs.

“If I lived in a perfect world where I could get the Kansas Legislature to do something, it would be to cancel rent,” he said.

Though he said he hadn’t been able to find good stats specific to Kansas, Vasquez noted that 40 million people nationally face eviction.

“With people losing their jobs and being not able to work, the fact that rent is still looming and building up for a lot of people is scary,” he said. “Especially because it makes it significantly harder for someone to get a job if they’re homeless.”

But what about landlords who need that income?

“Landlords are just renting out what they own, and people are forced to pay for something that was available and would still be available,” he said. “People who work all the time — they are probably generating more for the economy than the landlords who are making money off of them.”

I’ll add my own wish for lawmakers: That they always tell us the truth.

I know. It’s crazier than asking them to cancel rent.