Fiscal policy changes can begin to make Kansas more racially equitable

Examining recommendations from the governor’s commission

Fiscal policy has important implications for racial equity, write Tiffany Anderson, Shannon Portillo and David Jordan. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka USD 501, and Shannon Portillo, associate dean and professor at the University of Kansas, served as co-chairs of the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice; David Jordan, president and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, chaired the subcommittee on health care.

How our state government taxes, spends, and accesses funding demonstrates our values and our commitment to addressing racial equity in Kansas.

The Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice examined federal funding and tax policy, seeking to understand how to address systemic issues that affect education attainment, economic opportunity and health across Kansas. Recommendations to address racial equity through tax policy and maximizing federal funding were included in the commission’s final report.

Kansas ranks 46th in terms of accessing federal funding to support the state budget. Having less federal funding affects our ability to support critical health and safety net services, disproportionately burdening state and local budgets when communities need access to services and restricting access to programs that support health and economic opportunity.

To improve racial equity, Kansas should maximize federal funding. 

State restrictions are a barrier to accessing federal funding. Policy changes during the Brownback administration greatly increased restrictions to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Today fewer than 10 out of every 100 Kansas families in poverty are receiving TANF benefits, compared with more than 30 in 100 in 2006. People of color are disproportionately impacted by hunger; SNAP helps low-income households afford groceries. TANF and SNAP benefits provide basic support to families in need. The benefits may be more than financial. 

Beyond negatively affecting Kansans, these restrictions increase interaction with the child welfare system, costing the state money. According to a University of Kansas national study, states that enacted similar restrictions as Kansas have seen higher rates of child abuse and foster care cases. 

These restrictions should be repealed.

As federal COVID-19 relief dollars come to Kansas, it’s vital that the government entities distributing these funds consider the perspectives of people of color and communities most impacted. Relief funds should be targeted to help those most in need due to the pandemic.

As federal COVID-19 relief dollars come to Kansas, it’s vital that the government entities distributing these funds consider the perspectives of people of color and communities most impacted. Relief funds should be targeted to help those most in need due to the pandemic.

– Tiffany Anderson, Shannon Portillo and David Jordan

Health equity should be a primary consideration when distributing relief funds. A broad definition of health should be employed, based on the social determinants of health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are the “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes.” 

Kansas’ failure to expand Medicaid has left more than 150,000 Kansans without access to health care and resulted in more than $5.4 billion in lost federal funding. 

The effect of Kansas’ decision not to draw down federal dollars can be seen in our standing in America’s Health Rankings, which has fallen more than any other state in the nation since 1990. 

Kansas can maximize federal dollars to improve health outcomes through the state’s Medicaid program, KanCare. The social determinants of health should be a focus as Kansas begins the process of redesigning its Medicaid program during the upcoming contracting process. KanCare can begin addressing inequities by recognizing and paying for culturally competent care teams that include proven community-based providers such as community health workers and doulas. Improvements to patient-centered care teams and delivery models, and innovative models pioneered by other states that have improved health outcomes and reduced disparities should be a priority.

Kansas government entities must examine tax policy to improve racial equity and ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors don’t shoulder the burdens of an unfair tax system built on consumption taxes. 

A disproportionate number of low-income individuals are people of color. Some states tax low-income people at higher rates, which can worsen racial inequity. Kansas state and local taxing authorities should collect race and ethnicity data during both tax assessment and tax distribution. The data should be assessed and analyzed to determine the effect of the tax structure on all Kansans. 

Kansas is one of seven states that still fully taxes groceries. To reduce the burden on low-income Kansans, we should eliminate the food sales tax on groceries, which is the second highest in the nation. 

State and local governments, especially in the criminal justice system, should rely less on fines and fees to fund their work. Governments should seek more equitable funding streams, including drawing down federal funds. 

Taxes are rarely fun to talk about, but they are the foundation for how we fund government and services. We must ensure our taxing and budget structures reflect our values as Kansans and help create more equitable communities. The commission’s recommendations offer a path forward, but your time, leadership, and engagement are needed to realize change. 

Let’s get to work.

About this series

In June 2020, Gov. Laura Kelly signed Executive Order 20-48, forming the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. The Commission studied issues of racial equity and justice across systems in Kansas, focusing first on policing and law enforcement and then on economic systems, education, and health care. The Commission developed recommendations for state agencies, the Legislature, and local governments. Through the end of 2022, commissioners will dig deeper into the recommendations in a monthly series.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Tiffany Anderson
Tiffany Anderson

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, a longtime Kansas resident, has been a public-school educator for more than 28 years, with most of that time as superintendent. Dr. Anderson has been nationally recognized as one of Education Week’s 16 Leaders to Learn From. She has improved achievement and closed achievement gaps for students of poverty in rural, urban and suburban public-school districts. In 2016 she became the first African-American female superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, in Topeka, Kansas. In 2019, Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Dr. Anderson to the Postsecondary Technical Authority as part of the Board of Regents, and in 2020 Gov. Kelly also appointed Dr. Anderson to co-chair the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice.

Shannon Portillo
Shannon Portillo

Shannon Portillo Ph.D. serves as associate dean of academic affairs for the University of Kansas Edwards Campus and the School of Professional Studies and as a professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Portillo’s scholarship explores how formal policies and rules and informal social norms shape the work of public organizations. With community service is core value, Dr. Portillo served as co-chair of Governor Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice and serves as a commissioner for the Douglas County Board of County Commissioners.

David Jordan
David Jordan

David Jordan is the President of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, a health philanthropy focused on improving the health of Kansans. Before joining the Health Fund, David served as the executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, a coalition of more than 100 organizations working to improve access to health care in Kansas. He has more than 20 years of experience leading state and national efforts focused on changing policy to improve health and reduce disparities.